Air India merger: a tale of messed up industrial relations.

AuthorSen, Ratna


The 2012 strike in Air India is not the only one. The airline has had a series of strikes and is likely to have several more unless it can settle the issues arising out of the merger between Indian Airlines and Air India. The national carrier, christened NACIL has faced strikes in 2010, 2011, 2012, the last being the longest. "The country's once prosperous national carrier is now probably the most infamous company, for which mismanagement, discontent and conflict have become bywords ... (and is) stuck in a quagmire of financial mess ... with an unpaid workforce" (Asian Age, A tale of two warring airlines). The 2012 Dharmadhikari Committee recommendations highlight the many areas in HRM where integration even 5 years after the merger, sadly remains elusive.

The 58-day strike from 7 May to 3 July 2012 crippled Air India's international operations and caused an estimated revenue loss of Rs.625 crore. Even after the strike was called off on 3 July, the airline was not operating all its 45 international services till early August. Among the destinations to be axed first were Hong Kong, Osaka, Seoul and Toronto and the Middle East routes. Previous strikes also led to cancellations and losses.

All the strikes have followed similar patterns:

--Problem issues have emerged and discussions started

--Dead-locked discussions have led to work stoppages and/or declaration of strikes

--Flights have been cancelled with substantial loss of revenue

--Government and management have invariably come out as strong critics of union action and remained firm in disapproval

--Unions have been derecognized and their offices shut down

--Employees have been dismissed, but reinstated later

--Unions have been recognized again and continued to function

--Operations have been resumed after various lengths of partial shut down

The issues have been varied, the duration of stoppages different, yet never were the root causes or real problems addressed or preventive measures taken. The disciplinary approach was taken in every strike but did not yield dividends.

The Strikes

In 2012 about 100 pilots of Air India reported sick by 9pm on Monday, 7 May, minutes after their talks with the airline management and aviation ministry failed on the issue of training for the Boeing-787 Dreamliner. The number swelled to 250 by Tuesday (100 Air India pilots report sick, Times of India). The ministry warned that it would cancel international flights if the strike snowballed and would take strict action against the agitating pilots. Several flights were cancelled Monday night-Tuesday morning. Ultimately 434 pilots joined the strike.

The strike provoked sharp reactions. The aviation ministry, which just weeks ago secured a mammoth Rs 42,000 crore bailout for debt-ridden Air India, fumed at this "completely unjustified" strike. Civil Aviation Minister, Ajit Singh dubbed the protest by Air India pilots "illegal". "There are certain ways of even going on strike. The pilots may have grievances but they should have spoken to the management, me, other well wishers," he said. Several Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG) pilots were dismissed, the IPG was derecognized and their union office shut down.A senior office bearer of the forum of six Air India unions commented : "While the minister had asked pilots to resume work by 6 p.m. on May 8, five hours before the deadline the management derecognized the union and started issuing termination letters to pilots, ruling out possibility of dialogue" (Air-India-unions-ask-aviation-minister-to-end-pilots-strike, Hindustan Times).

AI pilots with IPG, had been laying exclusive claim to the new Boeing Dreamliner aircrafts, saying the same was ordered by erstwhile AI for their career progression--a claim rejected by the Supreme Court which backed the management's decision of sending pilots from the erstwhile Indian Airlines (IA) for training on the Dreamliner (Air India pilots' strike enters Day 15, ANI). Their contention was that "If half of those planes go to IA pilots, then our career progression gets stuck. We had prepared a draft that secured our interests but neither the management nor the ministry accepted it (A tale of two warring airlines, Asian Age). The 'enmity' between AI and IA pilots had reached such levels that the AI flights supposed to fly to Singapore with IA pilots (who were going there for training on the Dreamliner) was cancelled to ensure that the latter did not reach there! The IPG justified its stand by saying that they are not against ICPA pilots being trained on Boeings. "Training Airbus pilots on Boeing planes requires more money, and ICPA pilots are being sent to Singapore, despite us having the same simulator lying unused at the AI's office".

The Indian Commercial Pilots' Association [ICPA] on its part made a statement on the strike, saying that the IPG union had violated a tripartite agreement it had signed with the management and ICPA, which clearly stated that pilots from both unions will be trained on the Boeing 787 on a 1:1 ratio basis, because the IPG did not want the erstwhile Indian Airlines pilots to enter the domain of international flying (Asian Age, 201207-15). And both these are unions in the same organization!

Deep-rooted animosity had developed between the erstwhile IA and AI pilots after the merger in 2007. For years, the ICPA had watched Air India hog all the limelight when it entered the Indian aviation scene. The fact that the merged entity was named Air India was the final straw, and brought forth a feeling of neglect, leading to what is today one of the most crucial issues in the country's aviation scene (A tale of two warring airlines, Asian Age, 17 Jul 2012). The background is important.

The IPG was formed with the blessings of J R D Tata and was registered on 13 March 1948 as a Trade Union under the Indian Trade Union Act of 1926 (www. Ipgaccess). The founders of the IPG were a group of ex--Royal Indian Air Force fighter pilots who had joined Tata Airlines. The IPG had no office then and informal meetings were held in the crew room, adjacent to Flight Despatch, situated in the Departure Terminal of the Old Airport at Kalina. A captain, at that time earned a salary of Rs 844 per month and a Co- Pilot Rs 450. For many years since its inception the members of the IPG worked for the airline for the same modest salaries, without asking for a raise. J R D Tata is said to have commented that he had not given a raise since the pilots never asked for it. The first formal wage agreement came much later, in January 1960, between Air India International and the IPG.

The ICPA is a representative body for the pilots of erstwhile Indian Airlines Limited, claiming a strength of more than 600 members (http://

On 21 May 2012 after the strike entered its 14 day, the national carrier sacked 30 more of its striking pilots, taking the number of pilots who lost jobs to 101 (Air India pilots' strike enters Day 15, ANI). Civil Aviation Minister, Ajit Singh sought support of all Air India unions to restore the airline's financial health and its past glory. He cited the recommendations of the Dharmadhikari Committee, which went into all issues like pay parity and career progression, saying that these would be implemented only after all the unions are consulted. The General Secretary of the Air India Engineering Association said that the minister had appraised the unions about the government's intentions for a turnaround plan.

The IPG wanted a meeting on the strike with the Civil Aviation Minister on 25 May 2012 to convey the grievances and issues of the pilots. But this failed to yield any outcome as apparent in the IPG statement (IPG-Statement), which complained that the Minister met only five members of the IPG. As the meeting did not culminate in any mutually acceptable solution, the office bearers returned to Mumbai.

On 6 June, Ajit Singh snubbed the striking pilots, saying they will have to reapply for a job as the airline will hire new pilots (30 days into strike, Air India stands its ground). On 17 June, Ajit Singh said the government is not waiting for the pilots to return to work but making plans to move ahead (Not waiting for striking pilots to return: Ajit Singh). As the strike continued and the government showed little indication of softening, the IPG became anxious about an honourable end to the strike, which appeared to be headed nowhere. Thereafter, the IPG decided on hunger strike, which commenced on 24 June at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, obviously to attract attention (AI Pilots on fast Track for Govt Talks, Times of India). The desperation became apparent when the pilots clearly stated that they wanted "to get back to work and...

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