Air India Express sacks crew over mass sick leave that led to flight cancellations

Dismissed staff claim 'illegal' termination notices have 'added fuel to the fire'

Air India Express cancelled 85 flights on Thursday, after at least 70 were grounded the previous day. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Air India Express has sacked at least 30 crew members who were among the hundreds who suddenly called in sickon Wednesday in a protest against company policies, forcing the airline to cancel more than 150 flights over two days.

The budget airline based in Kochi, Kerala, said 85 flights were cancelled on Thursday, after at least 70 were grounded the previous day when 300 crew members failed to show up for work and went incommunicado.

The company is run by a division of Air India, the former national airline that the Indian government sold to the Tata Group conglomerate in 2022.

It operates more than 2,500 flights a week across 31 domestic and 14 international airports.

Affected international services include flights to Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dammam and Muscat.

The airline said it was operating 292 flights on Thursday with the help of Air India.

“We have mobilised all resources and Air India will support us by operating on 20 of our routes," a spokesman said.

"However, 85 of our flights stand cancelled and we urge guests booked to fly with us to check if their flight is affected by the disruption before heading to the airport."

The airline sent letters of termination to at least 30 staff late on Wednesday, citing “a premeditated and concerted abstention from work without any justifiable reason".

"A large number of flights had to be cancelled thereby disrupting the entire schedule, which caused tremendous inconvenience to the company's esteemed passengers,” the letter read.

The airline also said the crew’s actions were “subversive of public interest” and had “caused embarrassment, severe reputational damage and serious monetary loss to the company”.

Some of those still employed told The National they have been protesting, for more than a year, over disparities in pay, promotions and workload as a result of Tata's plans to merge AIX Connect, a budget airline formerly known as AirAsia, with Air India Express.

They said the termination notices had "added fuel to the fire" and were against the law because no prior notice was given.

“They asked us to come for a meeting yesterday but the moment the call was cut, the crew started receiving termination letters," said one crew member who has been working with the airline for 19 years.

The crew said their salaries had been cut by 20 per cent and benefits such as housing allowance cancelled.

“The housing rent allowance, travel allowance and uniform kit allowance have been removed,” another crew member said. "We used to have a make-up kit allowance as the company prescribed certain brands, that too is removed.

“The regulatory body says it is mandatory that crew rest for eight hours uninterrupted prior to flight. But we are put on another flight within 12 hours."

Crew members said they had written a letter listing their grievances last month to Natarajan Chandrasekaran, the chairman of Air India, but to no avail.

“If our health is compromised, who will compensate us for it?" they wrote. "It has been one year that we have been writing to the management. [The] crew is exhausted with extensive working procedures."

The Air India Express Employees Union is trying to have sacked crew members reinstated, its president KK Vijayakumar said.

“This is against the law," he said. "It is our duty to protect their employment. This is our concern and we have already intervened and spoken to the management to restore their employment.”

Updated: May 09, 2024, 12:12 PM