Court gags Air India strikers as 140 flights affected (Fourth Lead)

New Delhi/Mumbai, May 26 (IANS) The Delhi High Court intervened Wednesday to restrain Air India employees from continuing with their two-day wildcat strike that frustrated thousands of domestic and international travellers after over 140 flights of the state-run carrier were cancelled or diverted at short notice.

The state-run National Aviation Co of India Ltd (NACIL), which operates Air India, had filed a lawsuit both here and in Mumbai to challenge the legal validity of the stir and seek restraining orers against the 15,000 agitating employees, who were protesting a management gag order on their speaking to the media.

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

Civil aviation ministry officials said the Delhi High Court order gave the government the powers to invoke the Essential Services Maintenance Act that can be used to crack down on those who are failing to provide what are termed as ‘essential public services’ should they refrain from resuming their duties.

‘The strike is illegal. Some sections of employees are behaving irresponsibly. This will impact Air India’s financial health and its reputation,’ Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel told reporters here. ‘The unions and the employees should come ahead for talks.’

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

The minister went on to add that he had briefed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this morning on the matter and the government had decided to fully back the Air India management for taking strict action against the agitating employees.

‘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 and take further action,’ he said.

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

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

Patel 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 government also allowed its employees to travel by any carrier till such time Air India is able to resume normal operations, seeking to send out a clear message of zero tolerance to the striking staff.

But harried passengers were unimpressed at the steps taken.

‘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 have been left in the lurch, with passengers making a frantic effort to get alternative connections.

Sunanda Kumar, who was to travel to Patna from here, 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 has particularly left the passengers and the government angry is the timing of the protest, coming as it did after a major air tragedy in Mangalore involving the carrier that claimed 158 lives.

‘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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