Theatre of the absurd

Topics Coronavirus | Air India | Lockdown

Another scene from the theatre of the absurd played out at India’s national carrier, Air India, last week. A recent order by the management in light of the Covid crisis asked employees to “voluntarily” go on leave without pay for a minimum of six months up to two years, extendable to five years.

As expected, this left many foxed. What does that even mean? Who asks people to go on leave without pay for five years? The order is asking staffers to give up all the comforts and rights they’ve taken for granted till kingdom come — one of the main reasons a job in the national carrier is so coveted — of their own volition for five years. Who in their right mind would agree to that? And what happens at the end of five years? The pathway for an employee to find his or her way back into the airline after half a decade remains ambiguous.

The management is in fact holding a gun to the employees’ heads since the news reports on the matter go on to say that if employees do not opt for this voluntary furlough scheme, they would be handpicked by the CMD himself. In other words, the management would be forced to take matters in their own competent hands, pick a list of under-performers and ask them to sit at home. It primarily means a free-for-all situation: “I don’t like you, so off you go”. Only Air India could come up with something so original and professional!

But the icing on the cake is this: Either way, if 600 obliging employees come forward or are grabbed by the scruff of their necks and thrown out, the airline will save — hold your breadth — Rs 10 crore a month. Apparently, the monthly fixed cost of the airline during the pandemic is Rs 700 crore. It’s losses in 2018-19, a pretty good year, were Rs 7,635 crore. This grand scheme — which will create no end of bad blood unless employees succumb like a lamb to the slaughter -- will save all of Rs 10 crore! In my view, the airline would do well to furlough those who come up with this bizarre idea.

Two things appear to be at play here. One, at this time of crisis, the top management wants to minimise its own discomfort at all cost. The feeling is that pilots and crew who are paid more in line with the market reality should bear the brunt of the unpleasant situation. That’s why they have used every trick in the book to deflect the pain and so far have managed to take a pittance of a cut.

Two, employees know that this ship is in very bad waters and they need to make hay while the sun shines as it may not shine for long. From whatever I hear, the pressure on the Tatas to bid and take this headache off the government is building up (the deadline for EOI submission is August 31) and recent reports claimed that the Tatas might be the sole bidder. With the Tata group in all kinds of trouble otherwise, one can understand why its board members give the most roundabout of responses when asked about their interest in the national carrier. Last when questioned, Vistara chairman Bhasker Bhat told one reporter: “Which entity in India will not be interested to evaluate buying Air India?”, making it sound like there was a list of suitors queueing up. Many in the aviation sector — and I too — could have given him a long list in answer.

Then he added — as if he’d like to delay the inevitable — “we need to do a long evaluation as Vistara is itself on a long journey”. If I’d been within earshot, I would have added “unhappy” after “long" and before “journey”. But the larger point is this: If the Tatas were so keen and these responses are not evasive, what stops him from saying: “I don’t know about others but we’re in. This seems like such a great buy”.

Whether it is the pending doom and insecurity that is pushing the powers-that-be at the national carrier into these incomprehensible moves is not clear but I’d like to end with another recent ins­tance of the management’s inexplicable actions. In the midst of the pandemic, when all airlines are treading with as much caution as possible, Air India an­nounced a new route. All those who are desperate to travel now have the option of travelling from Hyderabad’s Sham­shabad airport on a newly introduced direct flight that brings you straight to Dehradun, a route abandoned more recently by IndiGo (they fly via Delhi).

For all you know, you might disembark feeling like a Maharaja in solitary splendour.

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