Air India unions to meet chairman over divestment bid


NEW DELHI: With the Budget announcing that a second attempt will be made to disinvest Air India, 13 unions of the airline will meet chairman Ashwani Lohani on Monday morning. The Budget has allocated Rs 1 lakh crore for AI and sources say that unless the government infuses funds to keep the airline running till — and if — it is sold off, the Maharaja could run out of cash to pay salaries beyond October. AI has a debt of almost Rs 55,000 crore.

Employees are clearly worried on both counts — what happens to their jobs in case the airline is sold off and about getting their pay beyond October by when the airline may run out of cash unless fresh equity infusion takes place. AI’s annual wage is about Rs 2,400 crore for its 9- 10,000 permanent employees and another 3,000 on contract.

Among the unions that will meet the management are those of employees, technicians, aircraft engineers association, pilots and cabin crew. AI has to repay over Rs 10,000 crore debt this year, for which it has no funds. Default on that will be bad news for the airline.

“We will try to get some clarity about our future and seek a roadmap from the management. With Jet gone, a growing aviation market like India absolutely needs a full service that flies to distant parts of the world. If AI also shuts down, India will become a feeder for foreign airlines for flying traffic between Europe, Americas, Africa, Australia and Far East,” said a senior employee.
The government had tried to sell off AI unsuccessfully last year too but could not get even a single bidder. Now it says it will learn from the experience of the previous attempt this time round.

The Jet example has shown that investors may be willing to look only at airlines that are up and running. So for that purpose, the government will need to pump in funds in the Maharaja to keep it alive till a new owner is found. “We are hopeful that a crisis of salary payment will be avoided with the promoter (government in AI case) providing the required funds,” said an official.

While AI flies to North America, Europe, far East and Australia (Jet used to go to some of these places), other Indian carriers currently have only narrow body planes with their most distant destination as of now being Istanbul to the west and Hong Kong to the east.

Vistara will start getting its wide body Dreamliners from next January. While Jet’s narrow body Boeing 737s were taken by both SpiceJet and Vistara, no Indian carriers opted for its wide body aircraft that once to fly to Europe, North America and far East.

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