By Samiran Saha
AIR INDIA Express (AIE), the low-cost arm of the beleaguered national carrier Air India (AI), has restored all 206 Gulf-bound flights from Kerala that it had planned to pull out due to “acute cabin crew shortage”.
Nearly 30,000 passengers — including those who had bought tickets on discount — would have been affected, had the flights to Dubai, Oman, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Muscat been axed. AIE tickets to the Gulf cost just between Rs. 7,000 and Rs. 9,000 — almost half of what the other airlines charge, making it the preferred carrier for many, especially labourers.
It was because the number of flights to these destinations kept steadily mounting that cabin crews were overutilised. As a consequence, instead of completing their mandated 1,000 flying hours in a year, about 150 crew members had either exhausted, or were on the verge of exhausting, their quota by September.
The airline’s U-turn came after protests by the Left parties, the intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office and a series of heated exchanges between state government representatives and the Centre. Many stranded passengers had even vandalised the AI office in Kozhikode.
To meet the shortfall, the management of the National Aviation Company of India Ltd (NACIL), which operates AI, will now deploy Airbus 320 and 330 aircraft, and crew from its domestic operations, to ferry the marooned passengers in Kozhikode, Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi.
AI’s Kochi-based spokesperson Aby George said in his turnaround statement that Kerala continued to be “a very important market” for the company. “Passengers from the state have been loyal to AI for the past 70 years. Keeping the long-standing relationship in mind, we have made sure that no passenger booked on any AI flight out of Kerala should be inconvenienced,” George added.
The truth, though, is something else. Sources say the swift rethink came in because AIE was under pressure from the powers that be, who did not want to damage the fragile relationship between New Delhi and Thiruvananthapuram. Right up to the moment the revocation order was received, AIE officials had been singing an entirely different tune, saying that apart from cabin crew shortage, poor load profile in the coming months too prompted the decision; and mid-September was chosen because this was a lean period for the Kerala-Gulf sector. But why, considering it is one of the airline’s most lucrative sectors, were so many flights pulled out? Why did it take the authorities so long to discover that most crew members on the route had already logged close to 1,000 flying hours this year — as mandated by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA)? The DGCA brief is being closely adhered to since the 22 May Mangalore crash killed 159 people.
Privately, though, some AIE officials admit that the company was at fault. “It was lack of farsightedness. Logistics were also not looked into properly,” an official, not wanting to be named, told TEHELKA.
In a scramble to offset the cabin crew shortage, NACIL had conducted a walk-in interview on 24 August. Of the 900 applicants, 70 were to have been selected and 150 kept on the waiting list as bench strength to forestall the possibility of a similar staff crunch happening in the future.
Photo: SK Mohan