Are employees at the country’s vibrant low-cost carrier (LCC) segment on some kind of a silent protest currently? In the past couple of days, unconfirmed reports have again surfaced of IndiGo and Go First technicians reporting sick.
Strongly denying those reports as baseless to Business Today, both airlines have, however, clarified that flight operations were normal.
However, it is undeniable that discontent has indeed been simmering among a large section of employees working with the Indian LCCs. Retired airline pilot and former head of operations at IndiGo, Shakti Lumba has attributed this to the the cultural shift that happened in the country’s aviation landscape with their advent in the mid-2000s.
“Since the new entrants were scared of trade unionism taking root in their companies, they ended up building clauses in work contracts that emphasised the obligations of the employees towards the employer and not the other way round,” Lumba told BT.
“As a result of such one-way agreements over time employees found out that there was nobody to hear their side of the story,” added Lumba.
The biggest concern amongst most airline employees today is the reinstatement of full pay. Most Indian carriers were forced to cut salaries following the sharp drop in air travel during the pandemic-induced lockdowns in 2020. In FY20-21, Indian carriers lost approximately Rs 19,000 crore, according to government data.
Following a BT story on how a go-slow by IndiGo cabin crew resulted in widespread flight delays at India’s largest airline on July 3 and 4, the airline had announced a slew of measures to partly address grievances among pilots. Among other things, the carrier announced the restoration of 8 per cent of pilot salaries from August. This is over and above the 8 per cent salary reinstatement that the airline had announced in March this year.
“The rollback of the pay cuts announced in 2020 has been woefully slow and in small tranches. After the most recent announcement, salaries have been restored by 16 per cent with a substantial portion still pending,” said Lumba.
LCCs like SpiceJet and Go First, however, said they had rolled back the pay cuts last year itself and even given increments in the current fiscal. Air India – which also operates the low-cost Air India Express – had also substantially rescinded salary cuts ever since its acquisition by Tata Group in January.
Another concern is related to long working hours due to an upward revision in the Flight Duty Time Limitation (FDTL) by the aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
“Revisions to the earlier FDTL were done by the DGCA in a manner that favours the airline at the cost of the employee. Those changes have resulted in pilots and cabin crew working longer hours while getting minimum rest. Consequently, employees are burning out faster as duty hours disrupt their work-life balance,” warned Lumba.
Moreover, pilots have to serve a protracted notice period to the company, deemed by many as unreasonable.
“The mandatory six-month notice period that needs to be served by a pilot while resigning from an airline under the DGCA norms turns them into bonded labourers,” alleged Lumba.
But it’s not that only pilots and cabin crew have a grouse.
“Ground staff at airports, especially personnel deployed in operations control, often work 16-hour shifts! So, all these issues have slowly contributed to the rising resentment among staff,” said Lumba.
Despite challenges like the high prices of aviation turbine fuel (ATF) and the current geopolitical uncertainty, India’s aviation sector is well placed compared to its global peers. With a rapid recovery in passenger traffic to pre-pandemic levels and a healthy order pipeline for new aircraft, India is projected to overtake the UK as the world’s third-largest aviation market in this decade.
Government and airline companies, therefore, need to resolve the concerns of people working in the industry on priority to ensure that growth forecasts don’t veer off trajectory. Or, worse still, as many experts have said, a situation may arise where vested interests can exploit it to browbeat Indian carriers in the global arena by questioning their safety standards.
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