Air India pilots have accused the airline’s management of making them work beyond scheduled duty hours, refusing their leave requests, and indulging in verbal threats, forcing their union to explore options, including a labour strike.
In a two-page letter sent to Air India MD and CEO Campbell Wilson, the Indian Pilots’ Guild (IPG) and Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association (ICAP), which claim to have the support of more than 65% of the airline’s pilot strength, have listed details about their grievances.
The Tata group-run airline has been facing repeated issues in the US-India sector, even prompting the former national carrier to slash six weekly flights due to crew shortage. Instances of delayed or cancelled flights of Air India are on the rise, especially of those where the Boeing 777 is used.
Two weeks ago, a Chicago to Delhi Air India flight was cancelled, leaving nearly 300 passengers stranded at the Chicago airport. Last week, two flights between San Francisco and Mumbai on consecutive days ran with a delay of almost three hours. Earlier this week, a flight from New York to Delhi, whose scheduled departure time was 12.30 pm, took off at 1.58 am.
ICAP blames the flight delays and cancellation on the severe shortage of pilots in the organisation. According to its estimates, Air India is short by 90-100 commanders for the Boeing 777 alone. “We made multiple attempts to talk to the management. We also approached the CLC (chief labour commissioner). The only option left for us is a labour strike,” an ICAP functionary said.
When contacted, an Air India spokesperson said: “There is no recognised union in Air India currently. All channels of communication with employees are open at all the times.”
Air India operates 47 weekly flights to the US, including six to Newark and 17 to San Francisco. The airline had earlier acknowledged that there is a limited pool of Boeing 777-rated pilots in India. It had put out advertisements inviting pilots to join the company.
“As per the DGCA CAR (Civil Aviation Requirement), the ‘weekly rest’ has to be printed on the roster. Air India is forcing the pilots to work also on days which are off days despite protests from the pilots,” the ICAP functionary added.
Earlier this month, aviation regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) approved Air India’s request to allow cross-utilisation of its pilots where a 777 pilot could also fly a 787 and vice-versa.
“Despite multiple concerns being raised in writing, we have seen little to no action taken to address the systemic deficiencies impacting our operations. We are now in a calamitous situation that requires urgent attention,” the IPG-ICAP letter said.
Air India has placed orders for 470 aircraft from Airbus and Boeing, which will be delivered over multiple years. This would require 6,500-7,000 pilots. Last month, the airline had declared that it will hire 900 pilots in 2023.
“For the sake of our passengers, our airline and any hopes that you may have of enticing new recruits to join us to meet your future expansion plans, we urge you to step in and remedy this situation. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that our operations are optimised and we ask that you take urgent action to address the systemic deficiencies impacting our airline,” the IPG-ICAP statement further said.