Air India pilots oppose new working conditions

The two unions of the pilots of Air India, the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA) and Indian Pilots Guild (IPG) have opposed the new wage structure and the terms and conditions of work being imposed on them by the Tata Group management. They have threatened to go on strike if they are forced to sign the new work-contract agreement, which they have called ‘draconian’.

The Air India management had on April 17 informed the staff through internal communication, about the revision in the salaries and terms and conditions of work of the pilots, to be implemented with effect from April 2023. The letters of contract, stating the new terms and conditions of work and the new salary structure, were sent individually to the pilots and cabin crew.

The management had not held any serious discussions or negotiations with the pilots’ unions regarding the new terms. According to the pilots, a virtual meeting with the employees, that the management organized to announce the new terms and conditions, was a “one-way communication” by the management. They made big claims of how these new conditions were for the benefit of the pilots, but avoided giving straightforward answers to any of the straight-forward and pertinent questions that were posted in the virtual chat.

The ICPA and the IPG together represent about 1,700 Air India pilots. In a joint letter to the Chief Human Resources Officer at Air India dated 19 April, they have said that “…terms and conditions are not acceptable to us, and we will contest this travesty using any and all avenues available to us. Our member pilots will not sign these unilateral revised terms of employment and compensation.” Further, the letter said: “Any coercive steps or victimisation by the company against our member pilots to sign these draconian terms and compensation will lead to industrial unrest.”

The pilots have also stated in the letter that “…any change in service conditions of Air India shall have to be done within the framework of industrial law… The action of unilaterally changing service conditions and thrusting new terms and conditions at our membership is wholly illegal, unethical and in breach of your own share purchase agreement, just as illegal as the unilateral alteration of the conditions governing leave and leave encashment.”

In response to this, the new Air India management of the Tata Group has declared that there is no recognised union in Air India. It has refused to recognize the ICPA and the IPG. It has refused to acknowledge the letter from the unions.

Why are the pilots opposed to the new terms and conditions?

The new contract is offering a fixed pay for 40 hours flying time, a reduction from 70 hours flying time, which they were being paid for earlier, before the pandemic. 3,000 pilots of Air India, Vistara and Air Asia are going to be affected by the new terms.

The pilots argue that this will lead to pay cuts whenever a pilot is on leave or cannot be on duty due to training requirements and license renewals.

The pilots have also opposed a clause in the contract, according to which the ‘workmen’ status of pilots will be ended. In other words, the pilots will be barred from forming their own unions and engaging in protests and strikes to press their demands or oppose the policies of the management.

The pilots are opposing the condition in the new contract, that pilots have to be always available for ‘standby duty’, whenever required. The airline management will now no longer provide pilots with a stable roster around which they can plan their lives. “In the name of ‘business exigency’, pilots are now expected to be on call 24×7, effectively on a perpetual standby,” they said. They feel that such a policy will adversely affect their social and family life. They have pointed out that pilots are already under a lot of stress due to daily and hourly changes in their flight schedules as well as denial of leave even when urgently needed. The new management wants to make this the new norm, the pilots have suggested.

The Tata Group which took over Air India in January 2022, has recently announced massive expansion plans for its fleet and network. It has claimed that it will turn the loss-making company into a profitable one. It has announced its intent to hire more than 1,000 pilots, including captains and trainers. The airline, which currently has more than 1,800 pilots, has placed orders for 470 aircraft with Boeing and Airbus, including for wide-body planes.

Clearly, the profits of the Tata group will be implemented by greatly stepping up the exploitation of the pilots and other employees.

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