Press "Enter" to skip to content

Flying Low: Airlines struggle to cope with employee issues – Economic Times

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.

“And because we know there would be substantial increase in our salary after receiving certification authority we give our 5-6 years to the company at such a low salary as a technician,” he added.

“Also, when an engineer is promoted, they should get a hike of 30-40% because there is a change of grade. Instead, they have been given yearly average hikes of 5-10%,” he said.

Technicians too have faced this. An aircraft technician’s salary starts from as low as Rs 8,000 a month.

In response to ET’s questions, an IndiGo spokesperson said: “The aviation industry has undergone a difficult phase over the last 24-plus months. As a responsible employer, IndiGo is in constant dialogue with its employees to take care of any issues or grievances. As our business recovers, we are in the process of addressing their issues and resolving them. This is an ongoing activity, and we will continue to take employee feedback in the process.”

A Go First spokesperson recently said that the airline reinstated employees from “Leave without Pay” to normal working conditions, and restored salaries to pre-Covid level since August-September 2021. He added there was no protest and all employees had come back to work. In response to ET’s request for comment, Go First reiterated the earlier statement.

But several employees said the salary restoration meant an actual increase of a few thousand rupees for many.

To be sure, unlike IndiGo which has almost touched its total number of pre-Covid flights, Go First still isn’t flying full capacity. An aircraft engineer at the airline said of a total fleet of 57 planes, it was flying 35. ET reported on July 4 that 12 of its planes were grounded as they hadn’t got upgraded engines from their suppliers.

IndiGo and Go First aren’t alone. Social media has been rife with angry posts claiming that the pay cuts of SpiceJet pilots had not been restored, but their seniors were getting full salaries again. SpiceJet had denied any serious employee issues.