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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April, 2003, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Pilot strike hurts Air India

By Ayanjit Sen
BBC correspondent in Delhi

empty air india check in counters at Delhi airport
Air India flights have been badly hit

India's national airline Air India is facing huge financial losses and a dent in its image because of a strike by its pilots.

The pilots are refusing to fly to any destination affected by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), the pneumonia-like virus which has caused panic in Asia and other parts of the world.

Last week, the pilots stepped up their action, saying they would not leave the ground without guarantees that crew members had not been in a Sars-hit country in the previous 10 days.

The airline has already suspended more than 45 pilots for not operating scheduled flights.

"Their demands were unreasonable," Air India spokesman Jitendra Bhargava said.

Air India has a share of nearly 20% in the Indian aviation market.

Finances hit

The strike has led to a number of flights being cancelled or rescheduled and is likely to hit predicted profits hard.

If the strike goes on for long, the airlines could lose customers to other service providers
Aviation expert Ganapathy Subramanium

The airline is estimated to be losing about $3.15m every week due to the cancellation of several of its flights to south-east Asia and the Gulf.

However, Air India told the BBC that the losses would not amount to much as the airline had already introduced contingency plans to tackle the problem.

"We have planned to cover more destinations in one flight and have made provisions to transfer passengers to state-run Indian Airlines whenever it is possible," Mr Bhargava said.

He also said that flights to destinations in Europe and America have not been affected.

In situations where flights cannot be operated, passengers are being booked on other international carriers.

The airline has also deployed executive pilots, and even recalled retired pilots to operate flights.

But experts say the crisis could have long-term revenue implications.

Air India suffered losses for six years in the last decade but has now made profits two years in a row.

"If the strike goes on for long, the airlines could lose customers to other service providers," civil aviation expert, G Ganapathy Subramanium, said.

He told the BBC that Indian Airlines and a few other foreign airlines which are operating from Delhi to the Gulf were benefiting because of the strike.

Image hurt

The image of the airline has also suffered due to the strike, industry experts say.

Air India's pampered pilots have a record of holding the airline to ransom during critical periods
The Times of India

"The grandeur and class depicted by the Maharaja, which is the logo of the airline, seems to have taken a beating," said an expert.

Even the airline's spokesman agrees.

"Yes, there has been an image loss but we are getting support from the public, media and the parliamentarians," said Mr Bhargava.

The airline has placed advertisements in newspapers trying to explain its side of the story and calling for public support.

If the press is a reflection of public mood - backing for the strike is already in short supply.

"Air India's pampered pilots have a record of holding the airline to ransom during critical periods," The Times of India said in an editorial on Tuesday.

This was enough reason to privatise the airline, which was being "held hostage by its own unwieldy, grabby and inefficient staff", the paper said.

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