Lured by the possibility of maximum profits in the rapidly growing aviation industry, the biggest private monopolies, Indian and foreign, are fighting each other to dominate this sector. Liquidating and privatizing Air India is part of this game.
The merger of Air India and Indian Airlines in March 2007 to form a single company called National Aviation Company of India Limited (NACIL) was a move to prepare for privatisation. The then Civil Aviation Minister pushed through this merger in the face of massive opposition from the workers of Indian Airlines. The Parliamentary Committee that examined the merger declared in its report in 2010 that this was a "marriage of two incompatible individuals". It demanded action against agencies and individuals who were responsible for the loss being caused to a state run company. Needless to say, no action was taken against any agencies or individuals responsible for this decision.
Side by side with the merger, a number of steps have been taken to ensure that the new entity would accumulate losses, so that it could be divided, destroyed and privatised.
The fleet size of Air India's international operations was increased dramatically, bailing Boeing out of crisis, and pushing Air India into crisis. The fleet acquisition plan for Air India was raised from 24 to 68. Huge gas guzzling Boeing 777 and 787's were ordered, which could only be used in long haul flights. Meanwhile, bilateral deals were negotiated with foreign airlines, which gave them a disproportionate share of the Indian market. In other words, while foreign airlines were given entry into India on various routes, Air India did not fly on these routes. In particular, Air Arabia and Air Lufthansa were given disproportionate access into India. The merged entity was pushed into huge loss straight away, by the purchase of new planes and by the loss of market share in the international segment. Furthermore, selected and favoured private operators were allowed to fly international routes, first Jet and then Kingfisher, competing with Air India and further cutting into its market share.
At the time of the merger in 2007, Indian Airlines had just regained its position as the number one airlines in India, with the highest market share of 21.4 %. It carried over 10 lakh passengers a month in 2007. Three years later, it had slipped to third place, behind Jet and Kingfisher. It flew roughly 6 lakh passengers a month in January - July 2010. This was in spite of the fact that the overall market had been expanding rapidly. Naturally, Indian Airlines also became a loss making entity.
The Indian Airlines served West Asia, as well as South East Asia, and had a huge market share in these segments, with flights running to full. This wing of Indian Airlines was cut off, and a new entity called Air India Express was created, with no First and Business Class. Immediately, passengers shifted from Indian Airlines to Jet and other airlines. The hiving off of the international operations of Indian Airlines was deliberately done to benefit the rival private operators, Indian and foreign.
Many foreign pilots have been hired at huge cost, even while there are adequate numbers of Indian pilots. In this way, the wage bill has been deliberately inflated. This is at the same time a measure to attack the morale of the Indian pilots.
At least 32 profitable routes having load factor exceeding 80% have been cancelled. After the strike last month, the management has cancelled even more flights in profitable sectors, as pointed out by the Indian Commercial Pilots' Association (ICPA). The best slots for departure in various routes have been given to the private competitors.
Right at this time, when the summer rush is on, Air India has cancelled flights on many routes, claiming that it does not have money to pay for aviation fuel. It also claims that there are no pilots to fly these routes. The pilots and cabin crew are being forced to sit idle. They are justly demanding that Air India increase the usage of its planes, so that they fly more hours a day, in order to make profits and compete with the private carriers. Instead of taking this obvious course, despite assurances to the contrary, the management is cutting down flights. What other conclusion can be drawn than that it is a deliberate move to liquidate Air India?
The state-owned Indian Airlines had been serving an important social purpose of providing connectivity for lakhs of people in the North East, and other parts of the country that are not considered profitable enough by private airlines. Once the state-owned carrier is destroyed, the people living in places outside of the metros will have to pay much higher fares for air travel to the private airlines.
At the present time, the pilots, cabin crew, and ground staff of Air India serve as benchmarks for pilots, cabin crew and ground staff of the private airlines, in their struggle against the intensification of their exploitation. The resistance of Air India workers has inspired others in the airlines industry to step up the struggle in defence of their rights. The pilots and cabin crew of Jet Airways, for instance, have been fighting for their right to organise themselves into a union. The workers of Jet and Kingfisher know that if Air India gets liquidated and privatised, their own exploitation would also intensify.
The struggle being waged by the workers against liquidation and privatisation of Air India is an entirely just struggle that deserves to be supported by the entire working class and people of our country.