Last week, the second longest strike in the history of Indian aviation finally came to an end. After almost 60 days of agitation, the national carrier, Air India, finally restarted full operations – not without first costing the government a whopping 6 billion rupees ($100 million) in losses. This is after the airline has already been reporting annual losses of $2 billion for the last four years. In many ways then, one could argue that the current woes of the aviation industry in India exemplify the state of governance in the country today.
In order to turn the fortunes of the national carrier around, the government, as expected, has made a few attempts to salvage the situation. As was expected, these decisions have not resulted in meeting set targets. In 2007, the government merged the domestic and international carriers in a move to shed some of its economic burden. This move, commanded by the previous aviation minister, Praful Patel, was deemed by the Parliament’s Committee on Public Sector Undertakings as “a blunder,” and also criticized by the comptroller and auditor general of India (CAG) who publicly announced that the decision was made at a top bureaucratic level, and not compatible with the on-the-ground reality of merging staff that had been trained and managed differently. A decision made without doing a background check of how the actual state of affairs in the country is, however, a common feature with the government in India today.
This merger, over the past five years has led to several smaller incompatibilities and stumbling blocks for the airline, but most recently saw itself snowball into the current crisis. Ironically, the precipitating factor of the strike was another attempt by the ministry to further reduce its losses to the airline: The government of India had ordered the Boeing 787 Dreamliners to add to its fleet of Air India (national carrier) planes — becoming the second country in the world that was about use these lighter, more fuel efficient planes in their commercial routes. But a disagreement on who would fly the plane (Air India pilots exclusively, or along with pilots of the erstwhile domestic carrier, Indian Airlines) saw 400 pilots boycott the airline for almost two months.
When an airline is already suffering from multiple woes, it is assumed that the government will take responsibility to control as much damage as possible. Instead, the current aviation Minister Ajit Singh allowed the airline to run on less than 80% of the staff in operation. Singh also sacked 100 pilots after the judiciary in India declared the strike illegal. He is not known to have made any comments on how much it would cost the airline to hire 100 more pilots and train them. It has also been reported that the costs to train an Air India pilot (who fly Boeing crafts already) as opposed to an erstwhile Indian Airlines pilot (who fly Airbus planes) is 70% less.
But costs to the state are hardly a matter of concern to the government. After all, inflation has now reached double-digit figures (10.33% in April, 2012 as opposed to 2.23% in April 2004). Recent reports also show India’s GDP growth rate to have fallen to approximately 5% (the government had hoped for over 10% growth during these years). Immense media coverage, and growing political and management pressure (and 11 pilots going on a hunger strike), finally broke down barriers between the government and striking pilots – ending the lockdown earlier last week. But the action keeping the Indian Aviation Industry exciting (under its debt of $20 billion), true to the style of our political culture – doesn’t stop. As Air India’s pilots finally agreed to come back to work, Kingfisher, a private airline, has gone on strike for non-payment of salaries (the airline has been deemed “high risk” for possible bankruptcy).
In the final countdown to national elections next year, the government of India is running out of time to fix the alarming number of situations that require urgent solutions. Of course, one option is to always consider a “bailout!”