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Air India stir off after Delhi High Court’s gag order (Roundup)

New Delhi/Mumbai, May 26 (IANS) The two-day wildcat strike by some 15,000 employees of Air India was called off Wednesday evening after a Delhi High Court restraining order, even as thousands of domestic and international travellers were left fuming after over 140 flights of the state-run carrier were cancelled or diverted at short notice.

In a tough stand against the agitating employees, the Air India management, backed by the civil aviation ministry, also sacked at least 15 union leaders for instigating the stir for reasons that were flimsy and out of context.

The sudden strike had further dented the image of the carrier that had come under a cloud because of reports of poor safety standards in the light of the Mangalore air crash and overall deterioration in services due to accumulated losses that topped $2.5 billion.

‘We have called off our strike after the Delhi High Court order. Our 15,000 co-workers stand with us. We will get back to demand our rights,’ said Anand Prakash, the joint secretary of the Air Corporation Employees’ Union, one of the many staff associations that had called the stir.

‘We have decided to resume our operations immediately,’ added Vivek Rao, another union official in Mumbai, even as a relieved Air India Chairman Arvind Jadhav said the carrier will make all arrangements to quickly restore normal operations.

The state-run National Aviation Co of India Ltd (NACIL), which operates Air India, had filed a lawsuit both in New Delhi and Mumbai to challenge the legal validity of the stir and seek restraining orders against the employees who were protesting a management gag order on their speaking to the media.

Justice Rajiv Shakdher of the Delhi High Court not only stayed the strike but also ordered the agitation planned from May 31 to be deferred till July 13, even as the Bombay High Court asked Air India to serve a legal notice on the unions and decided to hear the case Friday.

The day of fast-moving developments saw the government fully back the Air India management with Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel charging the striking staff with ‘irresponsible behaviour’.

‘The strike is illegal. Some sections of employees are behaving irresponsibly. This will impact Air India’s financial health and its reputation,’ Patel told reporters here, after briefing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

His remarks came minutes after the management’s talks with the unions had hit an air pocket.

‘The Air India management has our full support. They have to run an organisation. The ministry will not like to interfere in the process or (in the) way forward for Air India. They have a management, a chain of command to take further action,’ he said.

‘The management is free to take any steps to tackle the situation.’

Patel had also rubbished the stand taken by some union leaders that the airline had asked them not to speak to the press following adverse media reports based on the remarks of Air India staff after the accident in Mangalore that claimed 158 lives.

‘You should understand: The order dates back to July 2009 and was only reiterated on May 24,’ Patel said, adding it was unfortunate such acts were resorted to at a time when the government was helping Air India tide over its crisis.

The end to the strike should come as a relief for harried passengers, who were livid after two days of disruptions.

‘I had a flight to Hong Kong at 11 p.m. on Tuesday and I reached the airport at 8 p.m., unaware of the strike. The ground staff at the airport was in no mood to support us,’ said Shradha Gupta, who was travelling with her husband and daughter.

‘There was no information available and we were not told about the cancellation,’ Gupta told IANS in New Delhi, where an estimated 3,000 passengers had been left in the lurch, with passengers making frantic efforts to get alternative connections.

Sunanda Kumar, who was to travel to Patna from New Delhi, had a similar tale.

‘I was aware of the strike but hoping my flight would take off since not all operations were cancelled. But when I reached the airport, I was told the flight is cancelled. I’m trying to book on another airline, but private carriers have hiked the fare.’

What had particularly left the passengers and the government angry was the timing of the protest, coming as it did after the major air tragedy in Mangalore on Saturday.

‘This is just not done,’ said a senior official in the aviation ministry, referring to the lack of compassion among the agitating staff. ‘We cannot stand blackmail. We have told Air India to act tough this time.’

In fact, it was on May 16 that Air India flew a record number of 50,308 passengers on its network, leaving the management pleased that the carrier was on the path of consolidation post the merger of erstwhile Indian Airlines with it.

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