Strike by Air India Express flight crew prompts concerns over aviation industry working conditions

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Concerns are rising about alleged unfair treatment of India’s airline workers after cabin crew from Air India Express became the latest in the industry to strike, alleging a lack of proper support for staff, unequal treatment of experienced crew members and proposed salary cuts arising from the airline’s forthcoming merger with another airline, AIX Connect.

Around 300 cabin crew called in sick and switched off their phones on 8-9 May in protest against planned changes to the carrier’s human resources (HR) policies, effectively resulting in strike action that led to the cancellation of around 100 Air India Express flights.

The airline subsequently issued termination of employment notices to 25 members of staff, although following a conciliation meeting between Air India Express Employees Union (AIXEU) and the airline management at the Office of the Chief Labour Commissioner in Delhi the airline withdrew the termination notices and the crews withdrew their strike action and returned to work on 10 May.

Photograph: iStock-860381362, credit-YakobchukOlena

Claims of unequal treatment
Since Tata Group announced plans to merge its low-cost carriers Air India Express and AIX Express, discontent has been growing among cabin crew at Air India Express, with AIXEU claiming there has been mismanagement and unequal treatment of staff. The striking cabin crew allege there has been a lack of proper support for staff concerned about changes to employment conditions and benefits during the merger process and cabin crew are now being forced to share hotel rooms during stopovers, affecting their wellbeing and morale, and negatively downgrading their working conditions.

AIXEU – which claims to represent around 300 Air India Express employees – further claims that the removal of housing rent allowance (HRA) effectively means a significant pay cut for many staff, and alleges there has been a lack of equality in the treatment of long-serving and experienced staff, with new internal job roles being filled by external candidates, despite the presence of qualified internal candidates.

Various grievances
In a letter written to the chairman of Tata Group, AIXEU’s N Chandrasekaran, highlighted various grievances, including the removal of allowances such as HRA, resulting in significant salary cuts despite the airline’s consistent profitability.

“There is a glaring lack of equality in the treatment of employees,” wrote Chandrasekaran. “Salaries, experience and merits are being disregarded, with internal job postings now being filled by candidates external to Air India Express, bypassing qualified internal candidates.”

In the termination letter to the 25 employees on 8 May, the company wrote: “Your act of reporting sick for work amounts to concerted action with a common understanding to not operate the flight and to disrupt the services of the company. This is not only in violation of the applicable laws but also violates the Air India Express Limited Employees’ service rules as are applicable to you.

“You informed the scheduling team at the last moment that you were unwell and, accordingly, reporting sick. It is noted that at or around the same time, an overwhelming number of other cabin crew members have also reported sick and have not reported for their duties. This clearly points to a pre-meditated and concerted abstention from work without any justifiable reason.”

On 28 May, representatives of the AIXEU union and the management of Air India Express met again to discuss several issues, including salaries, alleged lack of proper support, alleged differential treatment of experienced crew members and the suitability of accommodation for crew during layovers.

Complaint filed
The meeting was organised by the central government’s Labour Ministry after a complaint was file to the department by the AIXEU union in 2023. The entire matter is now under conciliation in line with procedures under the Industrial Disputes Act 1947.

In December 2023, the Union Labour Ministry issued a ‘show cause’ notice to Air India Express for alleged violation of regulations with respect to certain disputes with the airline’s management and cabin crew members, according to a news report by PTI.

In November 2023, AIXEU also wrote to civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia setting the cabin crew members’ various grievances.

Vistara protests
Air India Express’ operational challenges came barely a month after another Tata Group-owned airline, Vistara, was forced to cancel numerous flights following strike protests by pilots over a host of issues, including pilot rostering for flights and changes to pilots’ salaries and employment contracts.

Vistara, which is merging with Air India in a further round of rationalisation of its airline businesses by Tata Group, had to cancel to 25–30 flights per day in April after a group of pilots suddenly took sick leave in protest at planned changes to salaries and conditions. The pilots alleged that a new pay structure proposed ahead of the merger with Air India would guarantee only 40 hours of flying time a month, compared to the current 70 hours, resulting in significant pay cuts. The pilots also alleged that Vistara’s existing and planned new rostering practices, are having, and will have, a negative impact on their work-life balance.

In recent years, pilots employed by Indian airlines have repeatedly complained of stress and fatigue due to difficult rostering schedules, alleging they are sometimes required to work consecutive night shifts without sufficient rest, arguing that erratic flight and work schedules add to the problem of fatigue.

Concerns have also been raised that maximum duty times (i.e. overall flight time and single shift hours) for Indian pilots working night shifts are not as stringent as those in countries such as the USA, potentially putting aircraft and passenger safety at risk.