Sunday, September 13, 2009

Jetting into an avoidable crisis
A. Ranganathan
The current crisis in Jet Airways was avoidable. The unfortunate developments have been blamed on the pilots of the National Aviators Guild — an entirely false impression. Pilot-bashing in the media reached its peak when the Jet Airways Chairman, Mr Naresh Goyal, referred to them as terrorists. This objectionable statement is what prompted me to write this article.
The spark for this unrest was set off by the action of the Jet management, when it summarily sacked two very senior captains. They were sent a single-line e-mail stating that they were terminated with immediate effect and no reasons were assigned. The Executive Director of Jet Airways, Mr Saroj Datta’s response to a question during a televised interview on a business channel, had a significant pointer. The conversation went something like this:
Q: Your present problems with your airline began when Capt Sam Thomas and Capt D. Balaram were sacked because they joined the National Aviator’s Guild. Why was that such an objectionable thing to do?
Dutta: I don’t think that is correct. Yes, they were a party to the formation of the Guild. But the reason they were sacked, or their services were terminated, is because there are internal rules, discipline and all sorts of things all of us are required to follow if an organisation is to function effectively and there were reasons for us to have to act as we did.
Obviously, the management did not want to admit that the reason for the sacking was entirely because the two captains were involved in the formation of the pilot’s union. The truth is in the open in the following interview with the Chairman of the airline, which can be viewed at:
http://www.timesnow.tv/Excl-Why-the-Jet-boss-wont-give-in/videoshow/4326959.cms
Poor management
Mr Goyal states that the two captains went around coercing pilots into signing the union membership form, which is far from the truth. Forming a union is a citizen’s right. Creating an impression that a pilots’ union would increase the insurance charges for an airline is a myth.
The American Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) represents all the pilots in the largest civil aviation sector in the world.
Several major airlines worldwide have pilots’ unions. They do not pay higher insurance charges. On the contrary, airlines with a unionised set of pilots have a good safety record. Insurance rates are based on the safety records of an airline.
Jet Airway’s ills began with a string of poor management decisions, starting with the acquisition of Air Sahara. With the collapse of the US financial sector during the Black September of 2008, reality set in. On July 31, 2009, when the Federation of Indian Airlines announced the threat to strike on August 18, the statement of the Chairman of Jet Airways was there for everyone to view.
He said: “We are bleeding. If the ATF taxes are not brought down and the government does not come forward to help the airlines, we have to close down”. The financial position of Jet Airways has not improved dramatically since July 31, to blame the pilots for its current financial woes.
The Guild
The National Aviatiors Guild was registered by the Regional Labour Commissioner on July 24. The two senior pilots of Jet Airways, who were both office-bearers of the newly formed NAG, were dismissed on July 31. The seed of the problem was sown by the Jet management with this single action.
Representations from the pilots were ignored by the management. When all their appeals fell on deaf ears, the NAG had no option but to issue a strike notice on August 24. This was absolutely legal under the Industrial Disputes Act.
The conciliation meeting under the auspices of the Labour Commissioner on August 31 did not produce the desired result and the management was asked to furnish the reasons for the sacking of the two pilots by September 7. They failed to comply and the Labour Commissioner fixed the next meeting for September 14.
The NAG withdrew the strike notice on the evening of September 7, but the members were agitated that the two pilots had not been reinstated. More than 300 of them reported sick.
The situation could have been salvaged the very next morning had the management reinstated the two pilots. This was the only demand of the pilots’ union. Instead, the management used a battery of high-profile lawyers to obtain a stay from the Mumbai High Court.
Meanwhile, Mr Goyal, instead of being in control of the crisis and solving the issue, chose to be in the power corridors of Delhi to mobilise the support of the Ministry and the DGCA. Fortunately, this move did not bear fruit and the authorities remained neutral.
Fuelling the crisis
The matter was pushed deeper into a crisis by terminating a few more senior captains and also obtaining a Contempt of Court order from Mumbai High Court, on September 9. This move has actually firmed up the determination of the pilots to keep close ranks in support of their dismissed colleagues. Mr Goyal fuelled the crisis by referring to the pilots as terrorists and his statement that he would bring in foreign pilots to cope with the situation.
On September 10, a public interest case was filed in Chennai High Court, highlighting the flight safety issues in the procedure for issuing permits to foreign pilots, who get preferential treatment over Indian pilots.
While the pilots were pilloried, all other airlines that were operating flights made a fast buck by charging exorbitant fares.
In all this, the only person who has come out a winner is the Director-General of Civil Aviation. In two months, he has quietly shown his mettle. When the Federation of Indian Airlines threatened to cancel flights on August 18, he cracked the whip and the threat dissipated.
When the Jet management went for indirect support, he stood firm by remaining neutral. At the same time, he has come down heavily on airlines exploiting the situation by charging very high fares. He has also ordered monitoring of safety-related issues.
The short-sighted management decision in refusing to take back two pilots who were illegally sacked is costing the company almost Rs 15 crore a day. It is going to take several months for Jet’s credibility to return, even if the crisis is solved in the coming days.
(The author is an airline captain with 35 years flying experience. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

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