The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Govt rides airport storm
Worse yet to come, say staff

New Delhi, Feb. 1: Flights were disrupted across major airports ' there was even a blackout at Mumbai ' but the government appeared to have made up its mind to ride out the storm.

Passengers were made to suffer long delays, particularly in Calcutta, which was the worst hit, and to a lesser extent in Mumbai, where nearly 90 per cent of the airport staff stopped work. As a consequence, there were delays elsewhere.

Similar disruptions are expected tomorrow as employees and officers of the Airports Authority of India protest against the privatisation of Delhi and Mumbai airports.

The protesters claimed their agitation would start taking its toll as days passed. “The air force people do not know how to handle sophisticated equipment like aerobridges, and services will start hitting snags soon,” admitted officials.

The cabinet today endorsed the decision taken by a group of ministers on Tuesday to award the contracts for modernisation of Delhi and Mumbai airports to GMR-Fraport and GVK-South Africa Airport.

The government did not start formal talks with leaders of the protesting joint forum of AAI employees and officers. As it played down the agitation on the one hand, on the other it got air force personnel to fill in wherever needed.

Officials said the attitude signalled that the government was not interested in compromises with either the employees or the Left, which is backing them.

Civil aviation secretary Ajay Prasad said though there were no plans now to enforce the Essential Services Maintenance Act, it would be considered, if necessary.

There were, however, indications that the Left, along with the unions affiliated to it, was uncertain of the employees’ ability to continue the protest.

“We can join them in solidarity only if they continue on the path of agitation,” Citu secretary Tapan Sen said.

Asked at a news conference about his ally, the Left, supporting the agitation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh simply said: “There are differences (with the Left) but ultimately decisions are based on consensus.”

Airport directors held informal talks with the workers to try and cool tempers, but neither civil aviation minister Praful Patel nor any of his ministry officials met employees’ leaders.

Patel instead passed on the message through the media that the deals would not lead to job losses and could help revive the AAI’s fortunes. Officials said this was part of a strategy to wear down workers.

There were flight delays and airport services like baggage handling were out of gear, but the government could keep the planes flying because air traffic controllers (ATCs) were at their stations.

Although sympathetic to the cause, the ATCs refused to stop work, arguing that it would disrupt flights across the globe.

Still, in Calcutta all flights stopped from the afternoon, resuming only in the evening, because fire services were not available.

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