Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Unpaid Kingfisher Airlines pilots ring safety alarm

NEW DELHI: About 30 Kingfisher pilots, who have not been paid salary for four months, confronted Vijay Mallya last week with airline safety issues even as the company tumbled deeper into a financial crisis.

The pilots met Mallya last Thursday and told him that flying with their minds preoccupied with personal financial distress is a safety hazard as they would not be able to pilot aircraft with a clear head, pilots who were present at the meeting told ET.

Agency reports on Tuesday quoted civil aviation minister Ajit Singh saying that no airline will be allowed to fly if passenger safety is compromised.

Pilots have also written to the DGCA requesting the civil aviation regulator to keep the mental state of the pilots in mind when there is a safety audit for Kingfisher Airlines.

"I will not be able to comment on it now," civil aviation regulator, EK Bharat Bhushan told ETwhen quizzed about issue. "He (Mallya) told us that whoever feels he cannot fly, can choose not to fly. If you feel you need to quit the airline you can and those who wish to stay back can decide to do so," a pilot who attended the meeting said.

The airline which has 450-500 pilots on its rolls needs 160 now as only 16 aircraft, from a fleet of 64, are flying. Kingfisher had 7,000 employees in 2011 each earning anywhere between Rs 25,000 and Rs 4.5 lakh per month.

None of them have received pay for four months now. It had a wage bill of Rs 532 crore during the first nine months of this financial year, roughly 11% of the revenues during the period.

But many employees are still clinging on to Kingfisher as they are unable to find jobs with other airlines. "It is too late to quit now. IndiGo, which was hiring in good numbers, has slammed brakes on hiring last week," said a Kingfisher senior commander who used to fly international routes before the airline withdrew overseas operations in March first week. "Whoever is left behind is in tatters."

The personal finances of lower rung employees are in dire straits. "Some of our colleagues as airport staff now have to worry about their next meal," said a Kingfisher employee who will now be quitting the airline after waiting for long for situation to improve. Kingfisher CEO, in a letter to airport staff in February, had offered assistance of Rs 5,000 for those working at the airport and need money immediately.

Senior level executives are struggling too. "No money has come into my account for nearly four months now. I am forced towalk to office as I cannot afford petrol for the car," said a senior Kingfisher executive.

Amidst all this chaos, the employees have nobody to consult. "We do not even know if the HR head (Ruby Arya) is still with the airline as she is not seen in the office and nobody in HR takes calls," said an employee.

"It is unbelievable that we are working for the same Mallya (Vijay Mallya, chairman and promoter Kingfisher) who was known for his flamboyance and lavish parties and who we thought will never have to face money problems," said a young Kingfisher employee who joined Kingfisher swayed by its glamour quotient.

Kingfisher's plight will impact employees across all airlines. A pall of gloom now surrounds flying schools and airline hostess training academies which were doing roaring business till recently. For aspiring students, hope has give way to despair.

"We are staring at a situation where not all our students aspiring to be cabin crew, would get their dream job," ED Rajan Mehra, co-founder, Asia Pacific Academy (for Aviation and Hospitality) said. "If Kingfisher Airlines reduces operations, it is expected that hundreds of cabin crew would lose jobs, in which case hiring of freshers will drop by a significant number." They have to explore options in other industries like hospitality.

About 4,000-5,000 students find jobs as airline cabin crew every year, added Mehra. Only 1,000 will get hired this year.

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