Aiming to allay employee fears in the face of a possible divestment of Air India (AI), Union Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju has said their interests would be “safeguarded”. The government plans to address the concerns of the national airline’s employees and take some “key decisions” to set the ball rolling for the eventual stake sale in the airline. “This has to be addressed and the (AI-specific) ‘Alternative Mechanism’ is going to address that. It has been set up to look at all angles (associated with) divestment. The employees’ interest is one of the most important aspects under consideration,” Raju told IANS in an interview at the Ministry of Civil Aviation offices here. At present, Air India and its subsidiaries have nearly 20,000 employees with 11,500 being on the airline’s payroll.
A ministerial group on Alternative Mechanism was formed to look into the modalities of the national passenger carrier’s divestment process. It is headed by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. The group has been mandated to guide the strategic divestment process and to decide on key issues such as treatment of AI’s debt and hiving-off of its assets. On the overall progress of the divestment process, following a decision to appoint external advisers by the group, Raju said: “There are many decisions that are still to be made.” “The Alternative Mechanism is working, but give it some time to come up with the decisions,” Raju said while hinting at the possibility of the ministerial group also reviewing existing holding requirements for foreign firms, which wish to invest in domestic airlines.
The minister acknowledged that two proposals evincing interest in Air India or its assets have been received by the ministry but a call on the (type of divestment and way ahead) would be taken by the group set up. Following the Union Cabinet’s “in-principle” approval to divest the government’s stake in Air India, the ministry received two proposals, one each for the airline’s international operations and for its assets from Bird Group and IndiGo. Currently, the airline has a massive debt burden of over Rs 50,000 crore. In terms of aviation safety, Raju pointed out that “safety remains the pivotal focus” area of the ministry “which cannot be compromised”.
“DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) has a set frame of rules and regulations for these things. They conduct periodical checks on the engines and if these (engines) are not found to be fit, then the aircraft is grounded,” Raju said in a reply to developments surrounding the mid-air failure of some Pratt and Whitney (P&W) engines installed on A320neos in service with two major domestic carriers. “We have a robust system of safety regulations. Passenger lives cannot be endangered. The safety concerns are being looked at and they cannot be compromised. Let us not talk about the number of aircraft in an airline’s fleet and the number of them being grounded. If there is a problem with an engine it will be dealt with,” he said.
The minister also said that civil aviation regulator DGCA and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) are working on framing rules and regulations on the usage of drones and unmanned aerial systems (UASs). The minister said that a balanced policy is needed to address the safety issue and that the regulations should not become an impediment to use of drones and UASs for legitimate and humanitarian purposes. “Legitimate activities should be allowed. A drone can even save lives, if used for humanitarian purposes (like in cases when a drone was used to deliver medical aid in Africa) — but we have to also remember that it can be used to deliver even a bomb and we don’t want that,” Raju quipped. Recent incidents of drone flying near airports have raised safety and security concerns, as these could get sucked into an aircraft’s engines, potentially endangering lives.