India budget airline cancels more than 80 flights after crew call in sick

Staff take sick leave en masse in apparent protest against working conditions imposed by new owner Tata Group.

An Air India Express aircraft is displayed at Wings India 2024 aviation event at Begumpet airport, Hyderabad, India,
Air India Express warns it will take 'appropriate action' against cabin crew as its flights were disrupted for a second day [File: Almaas Masood/Reuters]

Air India’s budget carrier, Air India Express, has been forced to cancel dozens of flights after many of its cabin crew members called in sick at the last minute.

The carrier announced 85 cancellations on Thursday, with local media linking the mass sick leave to staff discontent over new hiring and promotion policies introduced after the ailing national airline was privatised in 2021, selling it to Indian conglomerate Tata Group.

The disruptions started on Tuesday, with Air India Express reporting that more than 90 flights had been affected, but declining to specify whether they had been delayed or cancelled.

The airport in the capital, New Delhi, saw chaotic scenes on Wednesday as agitated passengers waited for updates on their flights.

Aloke Singh, the budget carrier’s chief executive, said on Wednesday that more than 100 staff members had called in sick.

An Air India Express spokesperson said the airline had taken “appropriate steps against certain individuals”, but did not provide further details. “Their actions have caused grave inconvenience to thousands of our guests,” the spokesperson said on Thursday.

Indian broadcaster NDTV reported on Thursday that “nearly 300” employees had called in sick and switched off their phones.

The budget carrier had sacked 30 staffers and issued an ultimatum to other employees to turn up by 4pm (10:30 GMT) on Thursday or face action, it reported.

Air India Express has mobilised all resources and revised its flight schedule, a spokesperson told the Reuters news agency, adding that it would be operating 283 flights on Thursday.

The carrier employs more than 2,000 cabin crew members and flies to 31 domestic and 14 international destinations. It has a fleet of more than 70 aircraft.

Protests against privatisation

The staffing chaos marks a blow for the Tata Group as it attempts to turn around Air India, which had racked up billions of dollars in losses and battled a reputation for tardiness and poor service before being sold off by the government.

When the group bought the national carrier in October 2021, returning control to the wealthy Tata family after decades of state ownership, the chairman of Tata Sons – the leading promoter of Tata Group companies – Natarajan Chandrasekaran laid out a clear objective: “To build a world-class airline”.

But staff at Air India Express were unhappy about the privatisation. Citing sources, NDTV reported that the crew had claimed “a lack of equality in the treatment of staff”. They had also flagged modifications in their compensation package.

Tata has also had trouble with Vistara, a carrier it co-owns with Singapore Airlines. Last month, pilots at Vistara called in sick, their complaints of fatigue and poor pay drawing solidarity from Air India colleagues. The airline was forced to cancel flights.

The group announced in 2022 an upcoming merger of Air India with Vistara, while Air India Express was proposed to be merged with AIX Connect, formerly AirAsia India.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies