New Delhi, April 28: The Centre is studying the possibility of declaring the action by Air-India pilots “illegal” to pave the way for tougher action, which could include sacking or temporarily replacing them with retired civilian and Indian Air Force pilots.
The action has grounded A-I services to several countries and virtually blacked out the airline from the Gulf and South East Asian skies. Civil aviation minister Shahnawaz Hussein said the pilots had “tarnished the image of Air-India” by taking action that was “illegal and unnecessary”.
The pilots have been refusing to fly with crew who are not given fitness certificates if they have flown to a country infected with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in the last 10 days.
Top civil aviation ministry officials said they were studying various options against the pilots. Initially, they had considered using the Essential Services Maintenance Act, but a study of its provisions showed that it would be difficult to use it against pilots.
Another option could be to get the labour commissioner to declare the pilots’ action illegal. In this case, the pilots run the risk of being sacked.
Already, 27 pilots have been suspended and 12 chargesheeted for refusing to fly over the past two days. Civil aviation ministry officials said suspension notices were being contemplated against 30 more.
Both the state-run airlines — A-I and Indian Airlines — have faced such situations in the past and responded by hiring retired pilots and pressing IAF officers into service. A-I has asked three recently retired pilots to report for duty.
A-I is also making use of the services of its executive pilots who are not members of the Indian Pilots’ Guild. But while the airline has a large number of trained executive pilots for the 425-seater jumbos (Boeing 747s), it does not have enough for the 200-seater Airbus 310s.
At the same time, last-ditch talks have been reopened in Mumbai between the pilots and the A-I management. Today, the pilots threatened to sue the management in the high court or even approach the industrial disputes tribunal.
Top ministry sources said there could be another set of demands behind the SARS agitation that the pilots were likely to take to the negotiating table sometime this week. This could include demands for higher pay. A-I pilots already have a take-home of about Rs 5-6 lakh a month.
Since the stand-off began, the pilots have maintained that the airline management was not taking adequate measures to protect crew flying to East Asian countries where the SARS virus had struck in a big way. Therefore, their demand for a thorough medical check-up of all returning crew and a fitness certificate was “a legitimate one.”
Pilots’ guild general secretary Captain Vikrant Sansare lashed out at the management for suspending his colleagues. “Every rule in the book is being bent to suit their convenience,” he said.