Air India said some of its maintenance and engineering workers went on indefinite strike Tuesday to protest a company policy that prevents workers from speaking out publicly about the carrier’s woes, another setback for the state-controlled airline as it tries to deal with the fallout of a weekend jetliner crash that killed 158 people.
The strike came on the same day police and aviation officials recovered the “black box” containing flight data from the Boeing 737-800 aircraft that overshot a hilltop runway in the southern city of Mangalore and plunged into a ravine. Indian investigators, working with U.S. authorities, are trying to determine the cause of the crash.
Labor unrest was brewing at Air India well before Saturday’s accident. Workers have been demanding salary payments they believe they are owed. Anand Prakash, joint secretary of the Air Corporation Employees Union, which represents some Air India workers, said the restrictions on speaking out against the company, which union officials are calling a “gag order,” triggered the strike.
The unions organizing the strike represent more than 12,000 Air India workers.
Y.V. Raju, general secretary of Airline Engineers Association, the other union participating in the strike, estimated that about 700 members, most of its membership, were on strike Tuesday. He said the union likely will meet with management Wednesday.
An Air India official, who estimated only about 500 workers across the country went on strike, confirmed that the company issued a notice to employees Monday telling them not to speak about the company negatively to the news media. “It isn’t a gag order,” the official said. “Every company has a codified process for dealing with issues externally and internally.”
Air India said it was experiencing flight delays and a handful of cancellations Tuesday afternoon as a result of the strike. “Management has mustered all available resources to minimize the impact on the scheduled operations,” the airline said.
The company said smaller airports were the most affected, but there appeared to be significant delays in some large metro areas as well. A representative at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport said the strike caused delays Tuesday of up to several hours on incoming and outbound Air India flights.
Air India urged striking employees to stand down, arguing that unity is necessary in the aftermath of the crash, which delivered a devastating blow to a company that is already struggling financially. “In this hour of crisis, the management earnestly appeals to all sections of employees to join hands to strengthen the airline and maintain high performance to show that Air India can cope up with any emergency,” the company said.
Air India’s state-run parent company, National Aviation Co. of India Ltd., is restructuring as it tries to reduce heavy losses and integrate Indian Airlines, another state-run carrier that it merged with two years ago.
“There continues to be a deep sense of disconnect between the management and staff,” said Kapil Kaul, chief executive of the South Asia unit of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, an industry research group. “The timing of the strike is unfortunate and reflects the crisis within the organization.”
NACIL is expected to post a loss of $1.2 billion for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2010, India’s civil aviation minister said recently. He said more than three-quarters of the firm’s costs are on items such as aircraft, fuel, staff and interest on loans. NACIL is trying to pare its losses by streamlining its fleet and cutting labor costs, among other moves.