A commanding pilot with IndiGo said they were being treated by the airline as ‘bonded labourers’.
New Delhi: A silent rebellion is brewing within the pilots and cabin crews of IndiGo, India’s largest airline (by volume), over discontentment on “unjust” salary cuts and non-restoration of the same even at a time when the airline has started operating at full capacity. The Sunday Guardian spoke to a number of pilots and cabin crews working with IndiGo who have expressed their extreme unhappiness over the non-restoration of salaries to pre-Covid 19 levels, despite the airline resuming all scheduled flights.
A commanding pilot with IndiGo, who did not wish to be named, told this newspaper that they are being treated by the airline as “bonded labourers”. “When the airline has started operations in full capacity and we pilots are doing the exact number of hours of flying as in pre-Covid level, why would we take a salary which is almost 22% less than what we were getting back in 2019-2020. We have raised this issue with the management, but what we got in return was like a slap on our faces. We have been reduced to bonded labourers,” the commanding pilot said.
IndiGo had reduced salaries of all its pilots by 28% in 2020 when the country went into a lockdown and all flight operations were suspended owing to the spread of Covid-19 across the country and world. Since then, over the last two years, despite flight operations slowly picking up and now being restored to full capacity, the pilots claim they are receiving much lower salary than they used to draw before the pandemic.
IndiGo pilots had earlier last week called for an open mass revolt against the airline by deciding to go on mass sick leave till the time their salaries are restored to pre-Covid levels. Sensing the danger of such a revolt by the airline’s pilots, which could halt operations in most of their scheduled flights, the airline was quick to announce a restoration of 8% of the salaries for their pilots, effective from 1 April.
However, the pilots were not satisfied with such a “meagre” rise as what they wanted was a full restoration of their salaries and threatened to continue with the mass leave. This had irked the IndiGo management and the company went ahead and suspended 10 of its pilots for revolting against the airline. “The suspension was absolutely uncalled for. We are demanding what has been due to us. If the company feels that they can threaten us with suspension like this, then they are wrong. We will not budge unless a full restoration of our salaries is given to us. The meagre 8% hike was an eyewash since this issue had gained media glare,” another pilot with IndiGo told The Sunday Guardian.
However, officials within IndiGo that this correspondent spoke to said that the company is going to restore another 6.5% of the pilots’ salaries by the end of November this year and with regards to the suspension, the IndiGo official said that the 10 pilots were suspended because the company does not allow forming of employee unions and what the pilots had done was against the terms and conditions of their employment. A First Officer of IndiGo told this correspondent with anger: “When the company is making profit, why can they not give our salaries?”
“The company announced that it has made a profit, so when you (IndiGo) are making a profit, why not pass it on to the employees? Or was the profit declaration just for the consumption of its shareholders?” the First officer said. IndiGo had recently declared that the company had made a profit of Rs 130 crore in the December quarter of 2021. The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), one of the largest pilots’ association bodies, has also written a letter in support of the pilots and has taken cognizance of their grievances. Captain Sam Thomas, President ALPA, told The Sunday Guardian that in the guise of Covid-19 pandemic, the airline is oppressing the pilots and that there is no transparency in the functioning of the airlines.
“When the load factor and the scheduled flights are back to pre-Covid levels, then why are salaries not being restored to pre-Covid levels? These airlines in the guise of Covid pandemic are oppressing the pilots and one can only be oppressed till a point. It is time to speak up now. When IndiGo had posted a profit in the last quarters, then why not increase salaries? There is no transparency with the airline and how its finances function.”
Captain Thomas also added that the pilots in India have no recourse whatsoever. He said, “Where will the pilots go for their recourse—to the DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation)? They are all hand in glove with the airlines. Pilots can’t even move the court as airlines will suspend them and you know court cases take years to complete and if a pilot does not fly for six months, their licences get cancelled. Such is the sorry state of affairs of our pilots in India.”
The Sunday Guardian tried to reach out to IndiGo through email, seeking its response on when the airline is likely to restore the entire salary of the pilots and their response on pilots’ accusing the airline of scuttling their voices through suspension. IndiGo refused to provide any official response to the above queries and only said, “We confirm that a handful of IndiGo pilots have been suspended from duty for indulging in activities that are in contravention to the terms of their employment and in violation of the code of conduct of the company.”