‘Flying Low?’ : The Air India Pilots’ Strike of 2012


The year 2014-15 will be remembered, amongst other events, for the worst imaginable aviation-related tragedies. The disappearance/crash of the Malaysian Airlines MH 370 in deep waters and the equally perplexing, Germanwings Lufthansa's crash in the French Alps have brought to fore, certain pressing questions confronting both the aviation industry, governments and the larger public.

The working conditions, physical and mental health of the airline staff, particularly of the pilots, and bureaucratic entanglements are now being hotly discussed, in the wake of these seemingly inexplicable disasters. In India, these discussions, however, have remained sidelined in the mainstream arena. Yet, suffice to say that the need of the hour is to closely examine the politics of public sector aviation services and what it entails for those involved.Unfortunately, for organised, union-led politics, the second largest aviation strike in Indian history which occurred in 2012 does not paint a spectacular picture, because the demands of the protesters were not immediately addressed. However, it throws light on the ensuing challenges for public sector employees and the engagement or lack thereof, with the larger organised working class movement in the country.

On 7 May 2012, Air India pilots, around 400 or so, reported sick and declared a protracted strike demanding wage parity and preferential treatment, with respect to training, in the much anticipated purchase of Boeing Dreamliners by the national carrier. Unsurprisingly, they incurred the wrath of the management, Delhi government, High Court and the passengers. In 2007, when Air India and its domestic wing, Indian Airlines merged under a single banner, the government was already debt ridden, estimated at $ 20 billion and rising. The running of the national airline had been plagued with problems for over a decade and unable to introduce adequate reform measures, the situation worsened by 2012. In the backdrop of these developments, the merger which was meant to be a saver, dampened hopes. Instead of infusing the ailing carrier with a new lease of life, Air India functioned on loss and its critics urged for doing away with it completely. It was no secret that Air India had failed to run its services professionally and in a commercially profitable basis, often running on routes that led to huge losses. It had also failed to upgrade its infrastructure and the staff, comprising pilots, cabin crew and the ground staff, who were at the receiving end of inner-management bickering and clashes with the government authorities.

At this juncture, the pilots of Air India alleged that they were sidelined and their Indian Airlines counterparts were given training to fly the Dreamliners. This, needless to say, came as a blow to scores of pilots, many of them new to the profession. The imminent hope was that the merger and purchase would help in career progression, which seemed possible in a job laden with attractive status, money and opportunities. But with round table talks failing, a consortium of eight unions, comprising Indian Pilots Guild, Air India Officers Association, Air India Engineers Association, Air India Employees Union, Air India Cabin Crew Association, Air India Aircraft Engineers Association, All India Service Engineers Association and Air Corporation Employees Union, decided to go on strike.

Viewed with a traditional lens, this particular protest might be out of place if one is searching for a “workers' strike”. Yet, at a different level, the struggle for gaining better career prospects and timely pay and equal treatment resonates with larger organised protests, across the country.

Under the aegis of the now de-recognised Indian Pilots Guild (IPG), the pilots declared mass medical leave and the operations of the airlines came to a screeching halt. Eleven pilots also sat on an indefinite hunger strike, some hospitalised in due course. The loss to the exchequer was staggering at a loss of Rs 70 crores and more per day, but despite pressure from all sides, the pilots held on. The strike captured national attention because the last time the IPG struck work was in 1974 for ninety days, against cost-cutting measures.. The duration of this particular strike, almost three decades later, touched a sour nerve and revealed a bitter confrontation between the parties concerned. Union Aviation Minister, Ajit Singh, termed the strike illegal and dismissed around hundred pilots from work. Although the primary demand was vis-a-vis training and pay scales, the concerted action highlighted the lack of credibility of the airlines. The trigger for the crisis was largely attributed to the ill-planned merger of Indian Airlines and Air India with Ajit Singh himself expressing dismay at the way the merger was poorly carried out. No proper negotiations and arrangements regarding salaries and allowances were put in place. Consequently, with varied pay scales for the staff on both sides and upon charges of discriminatory treatment, the Air India pilots decided to adopt a more militant form of protest by striking work.

Unlike other public sector employees such as those in railways, road transport, life insurance, banks, to name a few, professional pilots have usually maintained a distance from larger organised protests. But from the early 2000s, cost-cutting measures, widespread retrenchment and competition from private airlines, have affected pilots. Their protracted strike did not voice the grievances, similar to other public sector employees but nevertheless, threatened to disrupt state-led management and functioning, especially since the losses involved were tremendous. Neo-liberal measures had been stealthily in force within the aviation sector and the bailout by government did little to alleviate concerns.

The backing of the Delhi High Court helped the government deem the strike 'illegal' and the pilots were ordered to rejoin work unconditionally. The IPG put forth a charter of demands including withdrawal of the suspension orders but the government refused to budge, quoting it as a taint on the nation's pride and economy. Known for turning its head away from workers strikes and grievances, the media also meted out a similar treatment to the pilots. Both the international and national media repeatedly aired the inconvenience it caused to hundreds of passengers and that the strikers were being unnecessarily stubborn. Beneath this reprimand lay the general condemnation of any kind of organised action for advancement of employee rights.

Viewed with a traditional lens, this particular protest might be out of place if one is searching for a “workers' strike”. Yet, at a different level, the struggle for gaining better career prospects and timely pay and equal treatment resonates with larger organised protests, across the country. It also provokes us to critically and politically engage with them further. Upon entering its 58th day, the High Court asked the pilots to report to work and assured that the Air India management would look into the former's grievances. Choosing to respect the court's orders, the IPG called off the strike and insisted that the management take back all the dismissed pilots.

Today, as we take account of the deepening problems with the aviation sector, the strike of 2012 seems to ring louder. Given the perceptions of glamour and money associated with the profession, unfavourable working conditions are usually glossed over. Pilots, across airlines, continue to suffer immense work pressure and airline managements fail to monitor their health on many occasions. By offering voluntary retirement to its staff, the Air India management sought to curb some of its problems but refused to acknowledge that the rot was deeper. It opens up questions on the government's apathetic attitude towards essential public infrastructure. When the strike was called off, the government was still involved in another feud, this time with Boeing, and demanding compensation for the late delivery of the Dreamliner planes. That the government's tall claims of upgrading Air India and enhancing its quality fell flat came as no surprise.