Global Economics

Thousands Stranded as Jet Pilots Go on Mass Sick Leave


So far India's government has watched from the sidelines as labor and management battle over efforts by pilots to launch a new union

Jet Airways on Tuesday sacked three more of its pilots, deepening a row which has caused chaos at airports, caused the cancellation of 186 flights and thrown out of gear the travel plans of 13,000 passengers.

The airline has announced that it is cancelling over 30 domestic flights that were scheduled to operate on Wednesday as the government watched from the sidelines and said that it was for Jet and its pilots to resolve a dispute, which led to over 360 pilots going on sick leave on Tuesday.

The strike is linked to the demand by the National Aviation Guild (NAG), a newly-formed pilots' union of Jet, demanding the reinstatement of two pilots Sam Thomas and D Balaraman, whose services were terminated on July 31. The NAG had been in dialogue with the company and had said it would go on strike, if its demands were not met. The pilots were sacked for their role in setting up the union.

Mumbai was the worst affected, with 115 of Jet's flights not taking off from the city. In Chennai, six flights, including three international flights, were cancelled, while four flights flying out of Kolkata were cancelled.

Jet said, in a statement released on Tuesday, that "after announcing the withdrawal of the strike, the pilots resorted to a simulated strike by reporting sick. Since 10 pm last night, a total of 163 captains and 198 first officers reported sick disrupting the flight schedule and causing inconvenience to the travelling public."

According to the airline, the number of pilots who have reported sick represents almost 40% of the total strength of 760 national pilots. "This significant increase in the percentage of pilots reporting sick and disrupting flights is regarded by the airlines as a simulated strike."

Jet Airways' chairman, Naresh Goyal told ET NOW that the "strike" was illegal. NAG president Girish Kaushik told ET that the association's only demand is to restore the two senior pilots who were sacked in July. "We do not want to cause any inconvenience to passengers and Jet is just delaying things," he said.

His union, Mr. Kaushik said, will be meeting the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to try and resolve the issue. Another round of talks between Jet and NAG was scheduled to take place on September 14. According to civil aviation guidelines in India, any act on the part of pilots that could result in last-minute cancellation of flights and passengers being harassed would be treated as an act against public interest. Earlier in the day, Mr. Goyal met Mr. Nambiar and the DGCA's director general N Zaidi.

According to a Mumbai-based labour lawyer, since the pilots have gone on sick leave, it cannot be termed illegal. "That can be decided only by a judicial authority. If that is done, the pilots will have 48 hours to call off their protest," he said. Jet Airways may now could come under the purview of the Essentials Services Maintenance Act (ESMA).

For its part, Jet Airways on Tuesday moved the Bombay High Court asking for an order restraining the NAG and its members from going on any form of strike, which the court allowed. The NAG has said it is not in receipt of this order.

Meanwhile, Wolfgang Prock-Schauer, Jet's CEO, said a full refund of tickets without any penalty has been made to passengers. He, however, declined to comment on the issue of the two pilots, whose services have been terminated. There were also complaints that some private carriers increased their fares by 25% after Jet's pilots did not report for work.

On Tuesday, Jet Airways' stock ended almost 3% up at Rs 262.


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