Saturday, July 16, 2022

Flying Low: Airlines struggle to cope with employee issues

Rashmi (not the real name), a lead cabin attendant with IndiGo, got a frantic call from her manager at 2 am last month when she said she was afflicted with a viral infection and was on sick leave.

“I was asked to withdraw my leave application and fly. If not, a flight would be one short of the requisite crew and wouldn’t be able to take off. It was a request and not a command. But she sounded desperate,” Rashmi told ET on condition of anonymity.

She told her senior that she wouldn’t be able to make it. This wasn’t the first time she got such requests. And she wasn’t alone.

Rashmi said she was overworked. While she is rostered for six days of flying and one day off, she said she was often called on off days too.

Last month, she flew a total of 106 hours “which is a lot of flying”, said Rashmi. She attributed these instances of overwork to crew shortage at the airline.

Staffing issues that have severely hit airlines and airports across the world are now coming to India. And not the crew, airlines are also facing a shortage of technicians, engineers and other staff, as many are calling in sick, disgruntled with low salaries and incentives.

Airlines are struggling with angry employees who want their salaries restored to pre-Covid levels even as demand for air travel rapidly bounces back. Pilots, crew and technicians at IndiGo and rival Go First have stayed away from work for several days in the last few weeks, affecting flight operations and schedules. Employee complaints range from sustained salary cuts, lack of incentives that were earlier given, promotions without commensurate salary hikes and, on occasion, late salaries.

At Go First, for instance, several employees who are licensed aircraft engineers and have been certifying aircraft for more than a year, are designated as technicians on paper and paid for that position, two such employees told ET. This means they are earning Rs 30,000 a month, when the salary of an aircraft engineer is more than Rs 80,000, they said.

A mix of threats and counselling from the bosses have brought many of these employees back to work. But many are also resigning and going to Air India which wants to expand rapidly under the Tata Group; Jet Airways, which under its new owners plans to launch flights soon; and new airline Akasa, which also plans to start operations shortly.

All Indian carriers, during Covid-19, shrank operations, cut employee salaries by as much as 40%, fired many and put a large number of them on leave without pay.

Earlier this month, IndiGo wrote to its pilots that it would partly restore their salaries to pre-Covid levels. Some of their incentives would be restored too. It plans to do the same for engineers and technicians.

“But incentives, that form a very large chunk of salary, haven’t been restored fully. For example, engineers are getting certification allowance only on days they come to work, unlike pre-Covid when they got it every day. On days they are off, they lose a very large part of their salary,” said a senior aircraft engineer at IndiGo. He added the certification allowance can account for more than 60% of an engineer’s monthly pay.

“It is an extremely critical function. Until an engineer certifies the aircraft, it isn't considered fit to fly,” said one of the engineers ET spoke to.

16/07/22 Anirban Chowdhury/Economic Times

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