Calcutta/Port Blair, Jan. 23: Passengers had reached the Calcutta airport to catch the 5.35 am Alliance Air flight to Port Blair, but there was no commander available to steer CD 7287 yesterday.
With private airlines like Deccan Air and soon-to-fly Kingfisher Airlines offering a higher salary, around 23 senior Alliance pilots (Boeing 737s) have quit. Some 15 senior pilots are now running the show throughout the country.
In the Calcutta region, only two commanders were earmarked for Port Blair duty, but both were unavailable, forcing cancellation of the Port Blair flight, which has become one of the country's most important after the tsunami disaster.
'It is extremely unfortunate that both were not available. While one is out on a mandatory refresher course, the other commander had to opt out because his mother in-law is very sick. Therefore, we were left in a situation where there were no commanders to fly to the islands,' A.K. Goyal, the managing director of Alliance, said.
Co-pilots are not allowed to captain a flight on their own.
Goyal admitted that many pilots had quit the government-owned Alliance, the sister concern of Indian Airlines. 'I cannot recall how many have left, but we will make efforts to get better pilots,' he added.
Alliance officials said that since there were very few passengers listed to travel to Port Blair on Saturday, it was the first destination on the cancelled-flight list. Another Alliance flight, CD 7711 to Shillong, was also cancelled.
At Port Blair, passengers were booked on the return flight to Calcutta. 'The city office did not inform us that the flight might be cancelled, nor did anybody at the airport,' said one of them.
Passengers arrived at Port Blair's Veer Savarkar Airport around 7 am to find a 'flight cancelled' board placed in front of the Alliance counter. When asked, officials cited 'technical fault'.
Alliance pilots are leaving as upcoming private airlines are better paymasters. Kingfisher, for example, is offering Rs 2 lakh plus substantial incentives. In comparison, Alliance pays Rs 1.75-2 lakh.
'We had been clamouring for better salaries and upgradation of equipment, without any effect. When private airlines are ready to pay us good salaries, there is no reason why we should not leave Alliance Air,' said a pilot who has just left.
After the tsunami, Alliance was asked to take charge of Port Blair flights because of the damage to the runway there, making Indian Airlines' Airbus landings untenable.
'Despite all odds, we flew many flights. Our pilots are completely exhausted after making two-three landings a day,' said an Alliance spokesman.