India: Flying Pilots flex their class Muscles

The 10 day pilot strike that has rocked the troubled national carrier – Air India has ended with a partial victory of sorts for the pilots

The government agreed to look into the pilots demands within a timeframe. The issue relates to pay parity of pilots belonging to domestic routes with their counterparts in the the International routes of the same carrier, better working conditions & dismissal of current Chairman & Managing Director (CMD) of Air India Arvind Jhandav accusing him of being involved in corruption & causing loss to the airline industry. The pilots have recieved support from the pilot associaltion of Jet airways & other ground staff of Air India. Many of the pilots even joined the May Day demonstration in Mumbai organized by India Against Corruption expressing their solidarity with the movement against corruption.

This is not the first time that pilots are striking. There have been numerous occasions in the past four years involving both the pilot & the crew members of the Air India & Jet airways personnel. With 90% of the domestic flights grounded & an estimated loss of upto Rs. 150 crores (Rs. 1.5 bn), the pilots refused to budge an inch despite a smear campaign launched by the Air India management with ads accusing them of getting lavish salaries (Rs. 3 to 7 lakh Rupees per month) violating court order, inconviencing the passengers, causing loss to the industry & so on.

But the truth of the matter is that the current strike is not a result of any greedy pilots demands for higher pay but is a part of a larger strategy by the airline management in alliance with neo liberal govt. & pvt. Airline industry to dismantle the national carrier & eventually privatize the entire airline industry. The current crisis is a direct result of the open skies policy of the 90′s & subsequently more vigorously so in the last 10 yrs. which has resulted in a number of private players entering the scene resulting in substantial loss of revenue to the national carrier unable to compete with low cost pvt. airlines (no frills models). This has only been aided with Air India management deliberate policies of letting go of profitable routes to pvt. players resulting in even more further losses.

The loss is not just restricted to the national carrier alone, it also includes the once booming pvt. airline industry. If anything most of the airlines have been facing losses for the past four years as a result of the recession with lower passenger intake, high fuel cost & ultimately as a result of an unsustainable model of transport system which will not only doom the industry but also have a toll on the environment. This unregulated environment that has seen mushrooming with low cost carrier to fake pilots in command & an overburdened crew & ground staff, the Indian skies could never have been more unsafer.

While we express our complete solidarity & support with the striking pilots, it would be suicidal to imagine that the struggle is over & everything is back to normal. It may seem to appear as if the pilots may have scored a partial victory over the management but given the unstable economic environment globally, the situation is only bound to worsen. Management & the pro neo liberal govt. will never really give in to any the pilots demands & more such struggles will be the order of the day.

Because ultimately it is flawed economic policies of capitalist globalization which is being pursued by this current govt. as well as previous govt., which has deliberately favored private transportation as against public transportation, that is to blame. And solution does not lie merely in some cosmetic change here & there but a complete break with the past not only in relation to who controls the industry (public or private) but complete reorganization of transportation in India which puts mass public transportation on the agenda, which is affordable, environmentally friendly based on workers & people’s participation in running the whole system.

And it is apt to be remembered that issues faced by this apparently elite class of workers such as the pilots cannot be treated as the issue of the pilots alone. Unless their struggle is linked to the issues of workers in the entire airline industry (both crew & ground staff) & by default the struggle of the entire Indian working class with support from across the trade unions, only then would the system really tremble & workers taste a real sense of victory.

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May 2011