When Indian Airlines (IA) pilots got back to flying on 24 January, nearly five weeks after they struck work, one question remained unanswered: how did the two sharply polarised camps, the IA management and the pilots, finally come to an agreement? Apparently, no one in the airline’s management not even chairman and managing director L.Vasudev knew the details of the secret deal that had been worked out between the new civil aviation minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, and the agitating pilots.
What exactly had gone on?
The pilots went on strike in December last year protesting against prevailing aircraft safety and maintenance standards and demanding a hike in wages and meal allowances. Not one to be cowed down, Vasudev refused to negotiate with the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (IPCA), declaring that he would prefer to lock out the airline rather than yield to the pilots’ demands. Fortunately, for him, he had the full support of the then Union civil aviation minister, Madhavrao Scindia.
Executive pilots were brought in to undertake flying duties for maintaining a skeletal service. However, when even the executive pilots struck work a couple of days later, the IA chief was forced to lease aircraft, along with the crew, from Uzbekistan Airlines.
Looking back, it was probably a pre-mature move; Vasudev later attracted the flak for hiring foreign planes with wet-lease taking into account their airworthiness. To make matters worse, a leased Uzbek plane crashed in New Delhi and Scindia resigned in a huff. Azad was appointed in the interim. And a few days later, on 24 January, the pilots were based at work.
It looked like business as usual for the time being, except that details of the secret deal between the pilots and the civil aviation ministry began trickling out. It has now become known that the civil aviation ministry had conceded to early all the demands of the pilots. Here is a list:
A 50 percent hike in allowances for real light refreshment and entertainment for a one-year period starting 1 January 1991. In the period between January 1992 and December 1995, the allowance rise would be 100 percent.
An assurance that the temporarily recruited executive pilots will fly lesser hours than line pilots.
Pilots with less than 4,500 flying hours or eight years of service will not be considered for basic jet command training. The management will not send the pilots for basic jet training without consulting the ICPA. Earlier, the management used to send junior pilots for duty in order to pre-empt strikes and resignations by their senior counterparts.
Â· The ICPA will now have a representative in the IA board to decide on promotions and perks for pilots. Previously, it was the management’s sole prerogative to do so.
Â· No administrative or operational instructions will be issued by the management that contravenes the operations manual and the authority of the pilot in command. In other words, the pilot’s decision will be supreme.
But that wasn’t all. Negotiations are still under way and the pilots have some more concessions coming their way. There are possibilities that the pilots have some more concessions coming their way. There are possibilities that the pilots will get what they had been asking for restoration of normal operations in all airfields as recommended by M.R. Sivaraman, director general of civil aviation(see box), removal of retired pilots who had been re-employed on contract during the strike and a review of the remuneration package.
Much of the airline’s top-brass is still in the dark over how the pilots managed to wrangle such a cushy deal. High-level sources in the IA management revealed that there was pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on the civil aviation ministry to end the strike and resume normal flight services. The Republic Day celebrations were round the corner and three heads of state Boris Yelstin, John Major and Helmut Kohl were scheduled to visit India.
Soon after the strike was lifted, the IA board met for a crucial meeting on 11 February and some members openly castigated Vasudev for hiring the Uzbek TU-154s without ensuring proper checks. Among those who were present at the meeting were AICC general secretary Ahmed Patel, Minorities Commission member Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, civil aviation joint secretary Brijesh Kumar, Air India CMD Yogi Deveshwar and industrialists V.K.Modi and Sanjay Goenka. Vasudev was smart enough to maintain a dignified silence throughout the discussions. Whether he was right or wrong in wet leasing the TU-154s remains a point of debate. But even die-hard Vasudev baiters agree that there was no way IA could have provided even a skeletal service once the executive pilots joined the strike.
Ostensibly, the 11 February meeting was being held to discuss such pressing affairs as free passage for canteen members, civil aviation diamond jubilee celebrations and an inventory of stores. But not surprisingly, all other points were put aside as the discussion centered around the pilots’ strike.
After a heated debate, two sub-committees were formed to go into various aspects of the strike. One committee would look into the financial demands of all the IA unions while the second one would go into the financing of new A320s to be inducted into the IA fleet. The all-important issue of the secret deal with the pilots wasn’t raised at all. So, on 3 March, the matter was brought up at another board meeting.
That day, Vasudev was once again at receiving end. One board member thundered, “What do you mean that an agreement has been signed between the management and the agitating pilots. Why should we have to approve of it when we weren’t even consulted?” Another agitated member asked, “What are the board members for? Why weren’t we involved in the negotiations? Are we mere rubber stamps? Kya hum gaddha hain (are we donkeys)?”
Vasudev clearly was had no answers Looking grim, he said, “I was summoned by the minister and ordered to sign the agreement immediately. “It was a difficult situation for Vasudev, who had the image of a hard taskmaster during his earlier stint with Madras Fertilisers.
The fall-out of the deal has not been too good for the airline. No sooner had the pilots resumed duty, other IA unions started flexing their muscles. The Air Corporation Employees Union (ACEU), the All India Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Association (AIA-MEA) and the India Aircrafts Technicians Association (IATA) have all been making noises over their wages and allowances. Charges AIAMEA chairman of the Delhi region B.Dayal, “Our wages have not been revised since 1990. If they can concede to the demands of pilots why shouldn’t we also agitate?” Commenting on the bitterness within IA,ICPA spokesman Shakti Lumba sarcastically remarked, “They (AIAMEA) want allowances and perks that correspond to the pilots’ level”.
Indian Airlines, meanwhile, is hurtling to wards the point of no return. In the financial year of 1992-93, the public sector undertaking had suffered a loss of Rs.150 crore. With enhanced allowances adding to the lengthening list of expenses, it will be a long time before the airline finally emerges out of the red.