MUMBAI, India (AP) — A strike by Air India employees entered its second day, forcing the cancellation of over 100 flights — one more blow for the beleaguered national carrier days after one of its planes exploded in India’s worst aviation disaster in over a decade.
Analysts say the strike reflects a deepening crisis within Air India, which lost an estimated $1 billion last year and has been plagued by friction between management and employees.
Early Saturday an Air India flight from Dubai overshot the runway in the southern Indian city of Mangalore, killing 158 of the 166 people on board.
Members of two of Air India’s 14 unions walked out shortly after noon Tuesday to protest a management order not to talk to reporters and delayed salary payments.
J.B. Kadian, general secretary of the Air Corporation Employees Union — which says it is Air India’s largest union with 12,000 members — claimed that 15,000 workers walked out. The engineer’s union joined the agitation.
Air India spokesman S. Chandra Kumar said Wednesday that only 1,000 workers had walked out.
Kadian said workers protested after management disciplined union leaders for talking to the press. He said staff have also been upset by six months of delayed salary payments and short staffing of cabin crews.
When asked about the appropriateness of striking so soon after a deadly crash, he hung up the phone.
The government took a hard line as union talks Wednesday yielded no immediate progress. Officials did not rule out the politically contentious step of laying off striking workers.
Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel told reporters that management is “free to take any strong action.”
“This is absolutely irresponsible behavior,” he said.
Spokesman Kumar said 76 flights will be canceled Wednesday, after more than 32 flights were grounded Tuesday. Almost all the affected flights are domestic.
Indian television stations showed images of angry and despondent passengers stranded during a peak travel season in India.
Kumar said the airline had not ruled out firing the striking workers. “We are trying to be fair but firm,” he said in a telephone interview.
He said it’s too early to tally the financial cost of the strike, but about 30 percent of Air India’s flights have been affected.
Unions that did not strike condemned the action.
“At a time when we are mourning the death of our colleagues and passengers, it’s grossly incorrect,” said Sanjay Lazar, general secretary of the All-India Cabin Crew Association, which says it represents 3,000 Air India cabin crew and executives. “It’s a time for us to heal and move forward. All the bodies have not yet been identified.”
Air India was once a source of national pride. Founded by J.R.D. Tata, one of India’s most revered industrialists, the airline has disintegrated as a viable business and survives thanks to a 20 billion rupee ($421 million) government bailout.
Today, a visit to an Air India ticket office can be a trip back in time, with four employees watching a fifth laboriously write out tickets by hand.
“When you have a large section of the organization striking a few days after a national tragedy, it reflects no concern for the organization,” said Kapil Kaul, chief of the India unit of the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, an independent aviation research group. “It is a wake-up call for the government — the situation is so deep that their continuing inaction could be fatal for the company.”
The government has demanded a turnaround plan and cost reductions, but stopped short of ordering layoffs. Kaul estimates that the airline’s 30,000 staffers should be slashed by half.
Kaul expects the airline will lose as much as $5 billion over the next five years.
An attempt to trim performance-linked pay resulted in a five-day strike by pilots in September, with some 400 canceled flights.
(By ERIKA KINETZ AP Business Writer)