New Delhi: Some 600 Air India pilots continued their stir for the third day on Friday, defying court orders and a 5 pm management deadline to get back to work. Around 100 flights were grounded as stranded passengers cried foul over the steep fares being charged by other carriers.
"As far as we know, the strike is still on. None of the striking pilots reported for duty despite our deadline and the contempt of court proceedings against them. We are working out the future course of action," an Air India spokesperson said.
The pilots are demanding pay parity, better working conditions and reinstatement of sacked pilots.
The state-run carrier, which has the full backing of the government, has also suspended bookings on domestic and regional international destinations till Sunday. "Fresh bookings will only start May 04," the spokesperson said.
What irked the stranded passengers, numbering thousands across the country, even more was the steep 50-75 percent hike in fares charged by private airlines.
In the Delhi-Mumbai sector, for example, some passengers said the base fare that normally goes up to Rs 2,400-Rs 3,000 for last-minute bookings, had been jacked up to as much as Rs 7,500 by some carriers, resulting in a total one-way cost of Rs 11,500, including various levies.
Meanwhile, Air India has suffered a revenue loss pegged at Rs 27 crore since Tuesday midnight when the strike started.
Flight disruptions were mostly at the Delhi and Mumbai airports. The airline cancelled 52 flights in the national capital and 33 in the financial capital.
"We are only operating 15 flights from Delhi, whereas on an average we have 67 flights from Delhi," a senior operations official with Air India said.
He said the airline had since Thursday adopted a reduced operations plan, where fewer flights by widebodied aircraft would be operated.
"Currently, our operations are going on smoothly. As we have stopped ticket bookings, passenger loads will also come down and we will be able to tide over this period," the official said.
On Thursday, Air India curtailed its regular operations by 20 percent - with 60 flights - from its normal daily schedule of 320.
The Delhi High Court on its part initiated contempt of court proceedings against members of the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA), the union behind the strike and whose members were on the payroll of the erstwhile Indian Airlines.
The proceedings, launched on the court`s own initiative, came after the agitating pilots refused to return to work despite the court earlier restraining them from going on strike or resorting to demonstration.
Justice Gita Mittal initiated sou motto criminal contempt of court proceedings against the union.
"It is clearly evident that the conduct of the pilots is brazen, wilful and smacks of sheer arrogance," observed Justice Mittal, who also referred the matter to Chief Justice Dipak Misra, who would place the case before the appropriate bench for proper proceedings.
The case is likely to come up for hearing on Monday.
Air India set a Friday 5 pm deadline for its striking pilots to return to work or provide a valid reason for leave without which they would face sacking.
ICPA pilots said they were ready to return to work only if written assurances are given that their demands will be met.
"We are ready to go back to work. No one wants to trouble the passengers, but we want written assurances from the government that our demands are met and our sacked pilots re-instated back immediately," said AS Bhinder, central president, ICPA.
Members of the ICPA, who were on the rolls of the erstwhile Indian Airlines before it merged with Air India, struck work, demanding parity in pay with their counterparts in Air India and other issues related to work conditions.
But the government has so far decided to fully back the airline management.
"We cannot hold any talks with pilots till they return to their duties," said Civil Aviation Minister Vayalar Ravi, who had briefed the federal cabinet on Thursday.