The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Air-India, pilots on Kuwait collision course

Mumbai, April 9: Air-India and its pilots have got into a flight fight.

While the dominant Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association has passed a resolution not to fly to Kuwait for “safety reasons”, Air-India and Indian Airlines are fighting the pilots’ self-imposed ban tooth and nail.

Alarmed at the reaction of the pilots’ body, Air-India today said it would continue flights to Kuwait, with or without pilots from the ICPA, war or no war.

“It’s been more than three weeks since the war in Iraq broke out and the pilots come up with this absurd resolution now,’’ an Air-India executive said. The responsibility to “loyal Indians” in Kuwait count for more than their threats, he added.

An Air-India statement said that even during the first flush of the war, the airlines had not thought it prudent to discontinue its Kuwait flights, though many other airlines had.

Air-India and Indian Airlines, which operate a combined 13 flights to Kuwait, will now have its executive pilots take over the cockpit from “workmen pilots”.

“We will continue with our flights (to Kuwait), notwithstanding the directive of the Indian Pilots’ Guild,’’ the airlines said. “The decision to maintain services comes out of Air-India and Indian Airlines’ commitment, both as a national carrier and out of obligation to those who have been patronising our services.

“The pilot association’s decision has baffled the management as the worst in the Iraq war is now over and the air space has been consistently regarded as safe by international civil aviation organisations,’’ the statement said.

“Moreover, even global insurance companies, which impose enhanced premium whenever there is a slight risk due to war and other incidents, have dropped the decision to levy higher premium in view of the risk element being non-existent in the route.’’

The association, however, said it would stick to its stand. “How can anyone underplay the very potent threat of an Indian aircraft being shot down by fighter aircraft'’’ a member asked.

Captain Paresh Nerurkar, spokesman for the ICPA, said about 300 of the total 400-odd pilots will adhere to the decision.

“All the flights to Kuwait, every week, will be affected,’’ he said. “Fighter planes belonging to coalition forces are all over the place. Bahrain Air Traffic Control, which guides us till about 150 miles inside Kuwait, does not have control over these.’’

Maintaining that the association wants Air-India to double-check the situation in the Gulf region, Nerurkar said: “We have had to off-load flights twice earlier and rush passengers to bunkers because air-raid sirens went off. The risk is very much there.”

ICPA said though the fighter planes in the war can recognise civilian aircraft, the latter do not know their positions. “If we divert from our path due to engine failure or pressurisation problems, we are liable to be shot down as part of an evasive action.’’

Anup Srivastav, director of Indian Airlines’ public relations, rubbished the threat perceptions. “We are going to fly,’’ he said. “Our flights to Kuwait are proceeding as usual. If the ‘workmen’ pilots from ICPA don’t fly, pilots in the officer cadre called ‘executive pilots’ will be pressed into service. The ICPA directive won’t affect services.”

But even as the battle of words over flying in the war-torn skies continued, Air-India tried giving its stand a patriotic twist by saying there were 3,15,000 Indians living in Kuwait, who have to be taken into consideration.

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