Strike ends after over 100 Air India flights grounded days after fatal plane crash

By Erika Kinetz, AP
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Air India strike ends, over 100 flights grounded

MUMBAI, India — Air India employees called off a two-day strike that grounded over 100 flights and left more than 30,000 passengers stranded, after an Indian court ordered them back to work Wednesday, officials said.

The strike was a costly blow to the beleaguered national carrier just days after one of its planes exploded, leaving 158 dead in India’s worst aviation disaster in over a decade.

Public opinion fell heavily against the striking workers, but analysts said it’s too soon to tell whether India’s government will use this as an opportunity to make painful reforms needed to turn around Air India in a country where unions still wield enormous power.

“We have decided to call off the strike and we are directing people to join work,” Air Corporation Employees Union leader Vivek Rao told reporters Wednesday night.

The union leaders who spearheaded the strike have been fired, company spokesman S. Chandra Kumar said. The number of people dismissed was not disclosed.

“We had to take some action,” Arvind Jadhav, chairman of Air India’s parent company, told India’s NDTV. “This question is not about the strike … the question is about bringing accountability. The question is about discipline.”

That’s unusually hard talk and unusually swift action.

Kapil Kaul, chief of the India unit of the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, a research group, said in his 20 years of studying Air India he cannot recall another instance in which union leaders have been dismissed.

But he remained skeptical that the government will now make the hard decisions — like cutting Air India’s staff, which he says is more than double what it needs to be — needed for real reform.

“The Ministry of Civil Aviation wants to be firm, but I’m not sure the political leadership can stand up to a tough process of disengagement with unions,” he said. “If this government wants to turn around Air India seriously and send a message to other government-owned corporations that you can’t play with national assets, then half the battle is won.”

He expects the airline, which lost an estimated $1 billion last fiscal year, to lose as much as $5 billion over the next five years.

Members of two of Air India’s 14 unions walked out shortly after noon Tuesday to protest delayed salary payments and a management order not to talk to reporters about issues that could damage the company.

They left thousands of passengers angry during India’s peak travel season.

Unions that did not join the protests also condemned the action so soon after the plane crash.

J.B. Kadian, general secretary of the Air Corporation Employees Union — which says it is Air India’s largest union with 12,000 members — claimed that 15,000 workers walked out. The engineers’ union also joined the strike.

He said workers protested after management disciplined union leaders for talking to the media.

Days after an Air India flight from Dubai overshot the runway in the southern Indian city of Mangalore and exploded, an engineer told a local newspaper that the airline flouted safety norms — a charge the airline denies.

When asked about the appropriateness of striking so soon after a deadly crash, Kadian hung up the phone.

Air India spokesman S. Chandra Kumar said Wednesday that only 1,000 workers had walked out. He said at least 108 flights were grounded over the two days, but the total was still being tallied, along with the cost to the company. Most of the affected flights were domestic.

Air India was once a source of national pride. Founded by J.R.D. Tata, one of India’s most revered industrialists, the airline has disintegrated as a viable business and survives thanks to a 20 billion rupee ($421 million) government bailout.

Today, a visit to an Air India ticket office can be a trip back in time, with four employees watching a fifth laboriously write out tickets by hand.

An attempt to trim performance-linked pay resulted in a five-day strike by pilots in September, with some 400 canceled flights.

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