In India’s chaotic aviation landscape, never does a dull day go by. On the weekend, the soon-to-be heftiest kid on the block, the Tata-owned Air India supposedly held interviews to hire cabin crew as part of its latest recruitment drive.
In itself, this should have little to do with flight schedules across the country but according to media reports, the hiring drive managed to throw India’s largest private airline IndiGo’s schedule out of gear for the day as a large number of its crew called in sick – ostensibly to go for job interviews with the new entity. IndiGo’s on-time performance for the day plunged, compared with rivals, most of whom were pretty much on time. The matter escalated and the directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) took cognisance of the delays and said it would look into it.
On Monday, however, facts emerged. It turns out Air India was not holding interviews on the day when IndiGo’s operations were delayed and IndiGo’s cabin crew had, in fact, managed a coup by staging a “mass strike” and called in sick, something its cockpit crew has been contemplating but unable to pull off since April. The strike was probably a result of months of growing resentment within the airline and happened to coincide with Air India’s ongoing recruitment drive, leading to one and one -- as is always the case with many happenings in this country -- becoming eleven!
IndiGo’s staff – like many of its rivals – has been rather unhappy for a while now, due to steep salary cuts during and post the pandemic. In April, once details of employee stock options handed out to senior management became publicly known, the simmering discontent blew up. In a sort of crackdown by management, the more vociferous pilots were suspended by the airline, some of whom resigned, leading to matters taking a pretty ugly turn.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the matter, let me state a few facts that need to be highlighted both from an industry and passengers and/or public perspective.
Instead of brushing this simmering matter under the carpet, IndiGo management should take it head-on and deal with it. Since April, when the details of management employee stock options became public and the management offered pilots and crew what they felt was an “apology of a hike”, a fraying relationship between the two has been in tatters. WhatsApp messages are flooded with IndiGo employees sounding less than enamoured with their employer, citing long working hours, reduced rest, shoddy treatment of staff et al.
Less pay, they claim, is now the least of their issues; they are disillusioned with their airline and no longer feel it deserves their loyalty. In its own best interest, it is time the management took this bull by its horns. It would be in the airline’s interest to sit face to face with crew and pilots and deal with the issues without rancour and hostility on both sides since they have no choice but to live with each other.
Two, DGCA - as usual - seems to have been willy-nilly pulled into this matter of delayed flights when it should be worrying about greater problems such as the mayhem that has been breaking all around on the safety and aircraft airworthiness.
Although it has not been the only one, low-fare airline SpiceJet, in particular, has been giving passengers the jitters. A cursory search on Google threw up a spate of incidents, including the latest one in which the Spicejet cockpit crew called Mayday and made an emergency landing after the aircraft filled with smoke! What’s even more alarming is that this was the fifth incident involving the airline’s aircraft in the last two months. Prior to this, in June, two SpiceJet incidents were reported — one a bird hit, which led to an engine shut down and the other following a fall in cabin pressure as the aircraft gained height. Similar incidents have been dogging the carrier for a while now, including one where severe turbulence -- a factor not in its or any carrier’s control – led to serious injuries to passengers.
SpiceJet is not the only offender but it certainly has had more than its fair share of troubles coming to the fore of late. Air safety, in general, is of paramount concern and, as I see it, the DGCA should have its plate full for the moment since safety is supposed to be the regulator’s prime concern. Delays in flights of one airline - even the largest one - on one day should not be a call for concern for the safety regulator. If anyone needs to concern itself with passenger inconvenience, it could at best be the ministry of civil aviation (MoCA), which at least till now has steered clear of this controversy.
Moreover, the DGCA poking its nose in matters like this is a cause for concern for cabin crew, first officers and commanders who often feel victimised by a nexus they claim exists between their employers and the authorities (read: DGCA) who directly control their destiny. Every time they express any kind of unhappiness with the airline they are employed, they fear the wrath of the DGCA. If this is indeed the case, this can only be classified as intimidation and should be actively discouraged for any sector to flourish.
And three – this may be seen as a broader plea – I truly think that we as a nation need to go easy on our fanatical obsession with awards. IndiGo -- ever since it started flying – has been awarded and conferred “best company to work for” and such awards ad nauseum. Let’s put a stop to this nonsense. If indeed this is the case, there is nobody better to reward a company than its own employees. Let’s give IndiGo staff a chance to confer these awards directly on their employer by rewarding them with their trust, loyalty and goodwill. Actions speak louder than words.