| Porters wear masks at Amritsar railway station. (Reuters)
April 25: The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) scare hit outbound flights, with Air-India being forced to ground five flights today and staring at the prospect of three cancellations a day.
The airline’s pilots have refused to fly without “certificates” from the management clearing cabin crew. Members of the powerful Indian Pilots’ Guild want details of flights to virus-hit Hong Kong and Singapore in the last 10 days with the names and medical status of the cabin crew on duty.
But they insist they are not on strike, which is how Air-India has labelled the agitation. “We are not on strike,” said guild treasurer Mahesh Gulbani. “But why should they (the management) deliberately deny us this information'”
Strike or not, flight schedules have gone haywire. Five flights — Mumbai-Dubai, Mumbai-Delhi-London, Mumbai-Delhi-Hong Kong, Mumbai-Chennai-Singapore and Mumbai-Kuwait — had to be cancelled. As part of the domino effect, flights to the US via London and Paris are running behind schedule.
No other global airline has grounded flights because of SARS fears, although there have been cancellations on account of a drop in the number of travellers.
Only five SARS cases have been confirmed in the country so far, out of which one patient has been cured. The fifth case was reported today, when an uncle of Stanley D’Silva — one of the three patients in Pune — tested positive.
Air-India spokesperson Jitendra Bhargava said: “If talks fail, we will face a 50 per cent shortage on Airbus flights which means we will cancel three flights a day.”
The airline has drawn up a contingency plan by getting executive pilots, who are not part of the guild, to fill in for the strikers. But while it has a large number of trained executive pilots for its 425-seater jumbos (Boeing 747s), it does not have enough for its 200-seater Airbus 310s.
The striking pilots will meet the civil aviation secretary tomorrow, minister Shahnawaz Hussain said. “We will wait and watch the situation,” he added. The secretary, K. Roy Paul, is also part-time chairman of Air-India.
The airline got a taste of what is in store if the talks fail, when passengers on a hopping flight from UAE to Muscat via Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram cornered an official in an aircraft after the flight was delayed at Kochi.
But the government-run airline is unwilling to give in to the pilots’ demand. “Today they want us to certify crew, tomorrow they will demand one for passengers and the next day for hotel workers who serve them. This is not on,” said Bhargava.
About 200 million passengers have flown since the SARS epidemic surfaced, he pointed out. “But there have been less than five cases of SARS patients who contracted the virus on board an aircraft. That, statistically speaking, is as good as none,” the spokesperson said.
The pilots’ guild says the certificates are being made available by aviation authorities in Hong Kong and Singapore. It adds that it has not been “convincingly assured about the health of two Air-India pilots”.
At the international airport in Calcutta, the arrival and departure lounges have been sprayed with an anti-viral mixture. Some immigration and customs officials have begun to wear masks.