Recent Policy Decisions Adversely Impacting Pilot Morale, Strategic Disinvestment, Contingent Liabilities and Public Safety: Pilot Association
Letter Written By Executive Pilots Association to the Aviation Minister, Hardeep Singh Puri
We, the representative body of Executive Pilots of the Wide Body Cadre of Air India Ltd, comprising many of the senior most Pilots of the Long and Ultra Long-Haul Fleets, respectfully submit as under:
1. The world has acknowledged and lauded the invaluable contribution and sterling efforts of our Pilots as Corona Warriors during the COVID-19 outbreak. It was the will to respond to national call of duty, that got the Executive & other Pilots‟ to think out of the box, to facilitate operations in the most difficult and challenging times, to keep the aircrafts flying, and to keep our airline and its employees relevant, in an era plagued with bankruptcy and layoffs.
2. The major portion of India’s COVID-19 related evacuation missions VANDE BHARAT to rescue lakhs of stranded Indians from all over the world back to India safely were possible due to the courage, cooperation and innovative strategies devised by Air India’s Pilots, be it the cargo operations, or the unheard of FDTL extensions permitting „quick-turn-around‟ flights from Europe & China. Needless to mention, all these measures were taken in the middle of a pandemic. It was no easy task, to instil some amount of confidence in our Pilots & Crew, by putting together a system, so that they feel relatively safe, while risking their personal and family safety whilst undertaking this extraordinary mission. Being professionals that rely entirely upon medical fitness to earn a livelihood, this pandemic has proven a huge challenge for us all.
3. As in every war, there is often a heavy price to pay for those on the frontline. As of date, at least 60 plus Pilots have been tested Covid positive. Furthermore, unlike other wars, the enemy has accompanied the warriors home to affect their family members with devastating effect. At least one pilot has lost a family member to Covid19 and those of many others have been infected. With a steady rise in cases, the situation can only get worse from now on.
4. Defeating all the challenges and overwhelming odds, escalating threat of COVID virus spread, our courageous colleagues have ensured a steady revenue stream and cash flow for Air India throughout the period of this pandemic. Their exemplary devotion to duty has ensured that our company and along with it, many ancillary units and vendors, have found it possible to sustain in an environment where many
others have perished. Despite all these adversities the valiant efforts our own Top Management has treated us with most cavalier attitude. We are dismayed at the callousness and thoughtlessness with which certain policy decisions have been taken and implemented unilaterally.
5. The recent decision of Management adopting the compulsory leave without pay (LWP) model as well as the massive wage cut of the employees / Pilots‟ emoluments has led to serious discontentment and heart burn amongst the entire workforce.
6. It was with deep collective anguish that our Association learnt about the document on the subject of “Leave Without Pay”(Ref no HPDO2/LWP/420) dated 14/07/20 conveying the promulgation of a Board Approved scheme that authorizes the passing of an order to compulsorily send a permanent employee on leave up to 5 years on a list of subjective grounds- without recourse to another government or public sector job during that period. For Pilots, this would sound the death knell of their fundamental right to livelihood, as a flying license can remain valid only if one flies at frequent intervals of time. Prima facie, the compulsory leave without pay scheme appears to be a retrenchment policy without accompanying severance compensation and benefits.
7. To add to the above adverse LWP Policy, another directive from the Ministry of Civil Aviation on Rationalization of allowances of Pilots of Air India Ltd. due to impact of COIV-19 on aviation sector ( Ref. No.AV-17046/50/2020-AI) dated 15/7/20 has shocked Pilots even more whereby on 21st Jul 2020 Pilots have been paid their basic pay (for June 2020) and flying related allowances (applicable for April 2020) with unilaterally imposed and brutal pay cuts applied with retrospective effect from 1st April 2020, that appear to be discriminatory, disproportionate and arbitrary, with an approximately 70 to 75 % reduction in the total monthly emoluments specifically applicable to Pilots. It is reliably learnt that many other employee categories that have been working with relatively negligible COVID related risks and who continue to impose high input costs of the company, in the current market scenario, have been insulated from large pay cuts completely (i.e. with an approx. pay reduction of only 4% as per estimates) for reasons that are perplexing and unknown. This amounts to manipulation of finance loopholes and lacuna to unfairly penalize a particular section of employees within the organization.
8. All the above decisions related to “Compulsory Leave Without Pay” Scheme and the “Wage reduction” have been made without the consent of our Association and to the best of our knowledge, neither with the consent of other associations/ unions. It may kindly be noted that this is in continuation of the steady, downward revision of emoluments at regular intervals following the company’s abrogation of our wage contract for the period 1997 -2006, which is still under adjudication. We are constrained to once again lay claim to the wage arrears due to us with a minimum of 12% rate of interest per annum, which will get added to the liabilities of the company. Last year, the estimated financial liability of Air India stood at approximately INR 1200 Crores on account of the principal amount due to Pilots alone. This financial obligation of Air India towards Pilots wage arrears will now further increase again, at a compounded rate, following the fresh salary cuts imposed now.
9. This raises obvious questions in our minds. Do frontline public servants on COVID related duty who are risking their lives up in the skies and on bio-hazard frontlines deserve such indignity, humiliation and debasement, while so many others in the same organization, ensconced in the warmth and comfort of their homes, deserve preferential, kid glove treatment? Why do other Government run organizations and Central Services that employ public servants on COVID duty, such as Indian Railways, CAP, AIIMS etc, offer pay protection, ethics, equity and natural justice to their employees, while ours cannot?
10. This pandemic has vindicated the fact that the biggest asset to any organization lies in its workforce. Had the frontline employees not risen to the occasion, beyond their call of duty, our Airline would’ve long fallen out of relevance, like most around us. Our success with the initial rescue and cargo flights, gave our Government the confidence to commit and embark upon a massive Vande Bharat mission. The Pilots of Air India have led the industry by example, providing much confidence to the other Airlines to subsequently follow suit. Many cases of Pilots testing COVID-19 positive, has not managed to dampen the momentum, and neither has it deterred our Pilots from fulfilling their commitment towards the Airline and our Nation.
11. Taking along employees using a compassionate, just and ethical principles during these trying times, would be the desired way forward instead of increasing corporate liabilities and a disgruntled work force with the use of unilateral and legally untenable subject policy decisions. This is especially relevant when innovation and employee cooperation have become the key mantras of corporate survival in the post COVID world.
12. It is extremely unfortunate, that Pilots, who are at the core matrix of the airline operations and who are not only taking maximum risks upon themselves and their families, but are also innovating ways to keep the operations of our airline alive, are being targeted the most. Had our Pilots not gone beyond their call of duty, in terms of risks and ideas, our Airline would‟ve fallen out of relevance, with a steady or rather abrupt seizure in operations.
13. Our Association is also extremely concerned about the potentially disastrous psychological impact that the massive forced pay cuts and Compulsory Leave Without Pay scheme, may create on some employees. We shudder to think of the kind of desperate and extreme acts that could be triggered off because of the prevailing situation– as has been repeatedly proven many times in the past. These
aspects seem to have completely escaped the minds of the architects of the above-mentioned adverse policy decisions and pose an extremely serious and plausible threat to flight and public safety. As professionals entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of millions of our valued customers, we request that this matter is deliberated upon with utmost urgency.
14. As executives, we shall always support all acts and decisions that are financially prudent and serve the company’s best interests. Therefore, we believe that a rising stack of litigations and financial liabilities (contingent and current), arising out of pending financial dues owed to employees could potentially destroy our organization’s future health, and more so, would be unfairly transferred to any prospective buyer of Air India, in case the impending strategic disinvestment.
In view of all the above-mentioned points, may we appeal to you to revisit and rescind the above-mentioned negligent decision to change our service conditions and wages so that the future of Air India can be charted through constructive dialogues and collaborative decision making. May we reiterate our conviction that only compassion, ethics, and equity of treatment of frontline employees will ensure Air India’s survival and would take this august company to greater heights than before.
Sir, it is requested that grave risks being taken by the Air India Pilot’s and their families to keep this Airline afloat are recognised and such desperate, shorts-sighted and discriminatory measures that are being resorted to, in order to look at short term solutions to tide over the precarious fiscal situation are rescinded immediately.
Once again, we take this opportunity to reaffirm our continued dedication and commitment to serving Air India and our beloved countrymen during these challenging times.
EPA Managing Committee