Ready to talk if pilots end strike: Ajit Singh

In the midst of the standoff between Air India and the Indian Pilots’ Guild (IPG), Union Minister for Civil Aviation Ajit Singh, for the first time, speaks on a host of issues ailing the carrier. The conversation veered to the pilots’ strike, which the minister branded illegal, the merger of Air India (AI) and Indian Airlines, the continual drain of the taxpayer’s money through the loss-making enterprise, and the work culture hampering the morale of the Maharaja.

Raving to board: Hundreds of stranded passengers wait outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in the city, as the Air India pilots’ strike entered its fourth day yesterday. The pilots are agitating over unpaid salaries and dismal work conditions. They have urged the Aviation Minister to hold talks with them to end the impasse. Pic/Vijay Bate

Reporter: When will the ongoing standoff between the management and the pilots end? Everyone is hoping that your intervention will benefit both the employees and the passengers who have been left in the lurch due to flight cancellations.
Ajit Singh: I strongly believe that the strike is illegal. The Delhi High Court, too, in an order, has called it illegal. How can we start a dialogue with them when we know the strike is not legitimate? We are ready for a dialogue but they will have to call off the strike. Not only are they making the passengers suffer but are also jeopardising the whole system.

R: Do you think merging AI with Indian Airlines in 2007 was a wrong decision?
AS: I think the merger is not completed till date. I would not say whether the merger was wrong or right, I would rather say the merger did not help. I also feel both the airlines had a different work culture at the time of the merger.

R: Air India is always making headlines for its debts. Whom do you blame for this?
AS: It is seriously a matter of concern that the airline, which was making money till 2005, suddenly started making losses. Whether it is the IPG or any other union, they are all part of Air India. They have to realise that their progress is based on the progress of the company. Such action will not contribute to their progress. We have the Justice Dharmadhikari committee report with us and, during the implementation of its recommendations, we are going to talk to these unions. As we promised earlier, salaries are being timely dispersed, and all dues will be paid by June. Why strike?

R: Do you think that AI lacks an efficient work culture? If so, is it one of the reasons why the carrier is making losses?
AS: The government cannot keep pumping money. After all, it is the taxpayer’s money. The employees will have to be competitive and perform for the growth of the carrier. They will have to work as per the market standards.
R: You are the man in command now. If AI continues its decline, your role as minister will be questioned. Don’t you think so?
AS (laughs): Are you trying to scare me? I agree there are a lot of problems. I know there are many expectations from me. I will do my best to justify my role as a civil aviation minister.  

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