Air India pilots fired as cost-cutting measure get major relief from court

These Air India pilots had initially moved the court in July last year seeking directions to the company to accept the withdrawal of their resignations

Air India pilots fired as cost-cutting measure get major relief from court
An Air India Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Sergey Korovkin 84

In a major relief to pilots whose services were terminated by Air India, the Delhi High Court has ruled that they should be taken back into service. Not only that, the court has directed that the pilots' previous wages, including allowances, have to be paid at par with those of their in-service peers and in sync with government rules. 

Justice Jyoti Singh passed the order on Tuesday (June 1) on the petitions by over 40 permanent and contractual pilots whose services were terminated by the national carrier on August 13 last year in the wake of the Covid-induced slowdown in the aviation sector, The Hindustan Times reported. 

The court also said that the extension of the services of the contractual pilots would be at the discretion of the company depending upon their performance. 

These pilots had initially moved the court in July last year seeking directions to Air India to accept the withdrawal of their resignations. Some of the pilots had resigned in protest of the delay in payment of their salaries and allowances by the company. In August, Air India, however, handed termination letters to several pilots, including those who had withdrawn their resignations. Following this, the pilots appealed to the high court.  

The pilots had also complained that their notice periods were not reduced and no-objection certificates were also not given to them after the receipt of their resignations. 

The airline had cited financial constraints and the impact of Covid-19 on its commercial operation as the reasons for this drastic decision. The national carrier is estimated to have incurred losses of Rs 9,500-10,000 crore in the financial year 2020-21 -- its highest since the merger with Indian Airlines in 2007, according to an Economic Times report. 

The issue of pay cuts has been a major point of conflict between Air India and its employees, with two powerful pilot unions -- the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA) and Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG) -- being vociferous in their protests. They had approached Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri and Air India Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) Rajiv Bansal calling for a rollback of the decision to reduce their salaries and a reinstatement of their monthly flying allowances in line with industry standards. 

Also read: Air India pilots cry neglect after Covid snatches 3 captains in 5 days

In a March 23, 2021 letter, the ICPA drew Puri's attention to Air India pilots bearing the "brunt of unjust pay cuts with unilateral reductions to wages of approximately 58% from April 2020, and 55% from October 2020", when they had been playing a pivotal role in India's fight against Covid. Significantly, Air India has been a linchpin of the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM), repatriating stranded people from various parts of the world. 

An aviation expert told The Hindu that the pay cut would work out to a 40% cut on all allowances except salary, which constitutes a small part of the gross package. About 60-70% of what the pilots get is made up of allowances. Furthermore, the pilots are being paid according to their actual hours of flying, instead of the fixed 70 hours' payment as earlier. There has also been a 40% reduction in the hourly rate. The ICPA also pointed out that private airlines in the country had already scaled back austerity measures. The IPG urged the pay cut to be rolled back with retrospective effect from January 1, 2021. 

Last year, the two pilot unions had rejected the 5% rollback in the pay cut proposed by the management and said that the amount should be donated to the PM CARES Fund or for the new Parliament building.    

Indeed, the national carrier had operated the most number of repatriation flights. According to data provided by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) itself, till June 1, the Air India group operated 26,085 flights, carrying a total of 34,60,395 passengers. The Air India aircrew members have been risking their lives, exposing themselves to the coronavirus and its various foreign strains, trying to reconnect families, ending up seeing their own families being torn apart. 

Also read: Covid hits nearly 2,000 Air India employees despite study showing low risk inflight

Nearly 2,000 Air India employees were infected by Covid, 583 were hospitalised and 19 groundstaff were dead, according to figures provided by Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri in Parliament on February 11. This meant that about one-sixth of the national carrier's staff were down with Covid, and these were just figures till February 1. We are in June and one can well imagine the proportion that the problem would have assumed, especially under the circumstances of an alarming second Covid wave in the country and with various strains of the coronavirus on the rampage across the world.      

Things had come to such a pass that the national carrier ended up losing five pilots last month. The common grievance among most of the aviation sector employees in India has been that dilly-dallying by the government has deprived them of priority vaccination. They rue the fact that Covid jabs on time could have saved many of the aviation professionals who are not with us anymore. 

Not only the VBM, Air India employees have been at the forefront of various government initiatives to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, including the Lifeline Udan cargo flights, air bubble flights and flights for carrying vaccines, oxygen and other essential Covid relief materials. When the domestic aviation sector was thrown open in May last year after a two-month hiatus, the Air India employees were there again doing their duty.      

The aviation employees have sacrificed a lot doing their national duty, but has the nation given them their due? Not quite. According to a senior pilot, they have seen the worst of both worlds. They have exposed themselves to the virus but have often been taken for granted. Surprisingly, a supposedly top-notch global organisation like Air India only has a policy for ad-hoc payment of compensation in case an employee dies during the period of the pandemic. The amount of compensation (Rs 10 lakh for permanent employees and Rs 5 lakh for contractual employees) is also not considered up to the mark. 

There had been other crippling issues faced by the Air India staff, including lack of cooperation from the Air India Medical Services Department, lack of Covid-specific insurance, ostracisation at housing societies and so on. Against this backdrop, the high court verdict on reversal of termination comes as a real boon.

(Cover image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Sergey Korovkin 84)