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HC clears pilots’ return

Mumbai, May 2: Bombay High Court today cleared the runway for 24 of Air-India’s suspended pilots to resume “normal duties” but said they would have to reply to the chargesheets served by the airline.

The court, hearing a petition by the Indian Pilots’ Guild and 24 suspended pilots, said it would on June 16 decide whether their suspension was illegal. It added that the departmental inquiry would continue concurrently.

However, it was increasingly clear that the pilots had bitten off more than they could chew.

Air-India asserted that the disciplinary action initiated against the suspended pilots would not be withdrawn, despite the court allowing the pilots to return to work.

The court’s decision comes in the wake of the pilots calling off, last night, their week-long strike. Forty-six pilots of the now derecognised guild had been suspended by the Air-India management following their refusal to fly to countries hit by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The guild iterated today that there are no preconditions to their decision to withdraw the strike. A guild spokesman said the issue was resolved after Union labour minister Sahib Singh Verma told them their grievances would be “looked into”.

Moreover, “sufficient precautions against SARS had been taken by these countries”, he added.

Air-India, however, has continued with its tough stand, with the airline’s management saying the action initiated against the pilots would be taken to its “logical conclusion”. There are indications that the guild would remain derecognised and the disciplinary action against the “irresponsible” pilots would not be revoked.

“The pilots’ stand caused a lot of financial losses and discredited our airline,” said an Air-India official.

“Top authorities have decided that the disciplinary action against the pilots should not be revoked.”

The management also asked all the guild’s pilots to submit an undertaking by 5 pm tomorrow that they would operate flights as assigned to them by the management.

The airline official hinted at a schism in the guild, which wanted certificates from the management that accompanying crew who had flown to SARS-hit countries in the previous 10 days were healthy, saying it was forced to retract after many of pilots started reporting for duty on Wednesday. “A lot of pilots” had wanted to rejoin duty on Wednesday itself, the airline said, though it did not give exact figures.

Air-India spokesman Jitendra Bhargava said the management would not have any dialogue with the pilots’ guild. The guild remains derecognised, Bhargava said. “The airline’s management will not withdraw the disciplinary action taken against the pilots as it is abundantly clear that their strike was illegitimate. They went on strike on issues on which they have no locus standi,” he said.

Last night, more than a hundred pilots from the guild reported for duty and signed an undertaking stating they would work “more productively” irrespective of the directives from the guild, he said.

However, it was “not necessary” that pilots who had resumed duties would be assigned work, the Air-India official said. The airline had earlier this week begun moves to induct 50 new pilots a month before their scheduled joining time.

Air-India also said it would hold walk in interviews to recruit captains and first officers for B 747-400 and A 310 aircraft. An advertisement seeking applications was issued this evening by the airline. The appointments — of both captains and first officers — will be on one-year renewable contracts.

The airline announced that it would take at least a week to put its original flight schedule back in place, though the contingency plan was already being implemented.

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