New Delhi: Air travellers in India heaved a sigh of relief as the pilots of state-run Air India called off their five-day-old agitation early on Wednesday after an assurance over payment of allowances from Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel.
The carrier, already facing one of its worst financial crises ever that has resulted in accumulated losses of over $2 billion, now hopes normalcy will return from Thursday when all pilots on the roster report back to work.
"We have received an official communication from the civil aviation minister. He has himself assured us that there will be no salary cuts," said Captain V K Bhalla, a senior executive pilot who was spearheading the strike.
"So we have called off the strike with immediate effect."
What agitated the pilots were some unconfirmed reports that the management of Air India was considering a lockout should the strike continue. This was subsequently denied by the ministry and calmed the pilots.
The strike by Air India pilots had begun Saturday with 180 pilots reporting sick to protest a cut in their productivity-linked incentives. Till Wednesday, 128 flights, including some two-dozen on international routes, had to be cancelled.
Air India operates to 62 destinations within the country and 31 overseas with a fleet of 154 aircraft.
The Air India strike came within 15 days of a similar agitation by the pilots of Jet Airways, India's largest private carrier, who protested the termination of two of their colleagues for helping form a new union.
According to Captain Bhalla, who showed a salary slip of a colleagues to reporters in New Delhi, the pilot got a salary of Rs.23,000 for July, whereas he would have been entitled to Rs 250,000 had he been paid the incentives that forms a part of the salary.
Both Minister Patel and Air India chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav said the productivity-linked incentives had been paid till July and only the payment for August now remained, which, too, will be paid soon.
"We have no reason to not trust the civil aviation minister. I am asking all the pilots to come back on work. We would now fully cooperate with the management. We also apologise to passengers for the inconvenience caused," Bhalla said.
The truce between the agitating pilots and the management was also forced when the Prime Minister's Office intervened and asked the civil aviation ministry to resolve the matter at the earliest.
Civil Aviation Secretary N M Nambiar had also briefed senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office as also Cabinet Secretary K M Chandrasekhar about the developments.
Following that, the Air India management agreed to consult its employees before any decision on wage cuts.
"The modification will be discussed with the pilots. Management in its order has clearly said about this. Then where is the confusion?" said Patel after taking stock of the situation on Tuesday evening.
With two similar strikes in less than a month, Civil Aviation Secretary Nambiar also met with the officials of other airlines on how to prevent such disruptions in the future and asked them not to raise fares during such crises.