Turbulent times for Air India
Prerna Suri, Al Jazeera’s correspondent based out of New Delhi, reports from across the region.
All Gertrude Ingerberg wants is to go back home. The 60-year-old German national came to India a few days ago on what she calls a “trip of a lifetime”.
She saw the greatest tribute to love, the Taj Mahal in Agra, danced with famed musicians in Rajasthan’s Thar Desert and braved the Delhi heat.
But nothing prepared her for a plane strike. And since May 15, Air India pilots grounded not just their planes but also her.
“I’ve been at the airport since Tuesday night and since then haven’t received much information from Air India staff. They did offer to put me up in a hotel but right now all I want is a flight back home”, she tells me.
Gertrude will have to wait. Not only are the pilots still on strike, but there hasn’t been much progress in talks between management and them. It’s a scene being played out across airports in India.
Thousands of anxious passengers are complaining they’re not getting adequate notice from the airlines and many like Gaurav Dayal have just switched over to other flights.
Dayal was all set to travel to Toronto with his family this summer. Like any diligent traveler, he booked his tickets well in advance beating the skyrocketing prices one usually gets during peak seasons.
His plans seemed watertight, that is , until the strike happened.
“I heard about the strike and decided to cancel the tickets on my own. But when I tried doing that, Air India demanded I pay them a penalty of INR 16,000 ($350). This is insane.
I’ve had to re-book my family’s flights and had to change my entire holiday plans,” he complains.
Air India isn’t just losing face with this latest strike, it also losing a lot of money. The dispute is costing the debt-laden airline $2 million a day, at a time when the government announced a $6 billion bailout package just last month.
The airline owes millions of dollars to airports and oil companies and is mired in a $1 billion lawsuit with Boeing over a delayed delivery of jets.
So, the once-smiling ‘Maharajah’ of India isn’t just sick, he’s dying.
If one were to trace the airlines downfall, 2007 would be a memorable year. Back then, Air India merged with another domestic airline, the Indian Airlines to form an entirely new entity.
Both airlines were making profits until then but those numbers started declining as soon as the merger took place. Air india made a profit of $32 million in 2004, but the new entity lost roughly $1.6 billion this year.
“The merger hasn’t worked out as planned. Maybe some benefits were foreseen out of this move like synergy and economies of scale, but those did not happen” India’s federal civil aviation minister Ajit Singh told media persons earlier this week.
Many aviation analysts feel the government shouldn’t have merged the two airlines. But undoing the merger isn’t an option. Nor is shutting down the airlines. What Air India needs to do is skim it’s fat. So shutting down unprofitable routes is one way out.
Then there are the pilots. In the latest strike, Air India pilots are demanding that they hold exclusive rights to train on the latest Boeing jet, the ‘Dream liner’.
They say their erstwhile colleague from Indian Airlines shouldn’t hold the same training rights as it’s going to affect their career prospects. In response, 71 pilots have been sacked; and management is trying to cancel the flying licenses of 11 pilots spearheading the strike.
Will this work? So far, it hasn’t.
Meanwhile, like Samuel Beccket’s fabled character Godot, Gertrude keeps waiting. All she wants is a little bit of home.