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Air India strike upsets expats’ vacation plans — Airline operates truncated schedule

Posted on June 25, 2012
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Airline operates truncated schedule

June 21–The vacation travel plans of many Indian expatriates in Kuwait have gone haywire following the ongoing strike by the Air India pilots as India’s flag carrier sharply curtailed its schedules to south Indian destinations. Many passengers booked on Air India now look for alternative airline bookings paying exorbitantly high fares as India’s carrier was forced to reduce its weekly flight schedule from five to three. While officials claim that the airline maintains a truncated schedule despite the agitation, it has halted booking for July from Kuwait.

“The pilot strike is something that is beyond our control. Still, we are operating three weekly flights from Kuwait in place of five to south Indian destinations. Currently, we manage to accommodate about 70 percent of the passengers on the same day itself they are booked. The backlog is being adjusted in subsequent flights. We are also rerouting some of the passengers via Chennai on Indian Airlines fights,” an Air India official told the Kuwait Times on condition of anonymity.

Some passengers who just arrived from India narrate their harrowing tale as they had to fly through Goa, Chennai and Bangalore before finally landing at their destination in Kochi after more than 16 hours. Many are now concerned about their return journey as well. According to them if they fail to return to Kuwait as scheduled, their jobs will be in jeopardy.

“If the strike continues, there is no guarantee that we can come back in July as planned,” says Hussain Khaled. Also, people who are scheduled to go back to India on expiry of their visit visas are also on the horns of a dilemma. According to officials, only about 20 percent of the passengers booked on air India are seeking refunds since a new booking now is extremely difficult and fares are very high.

“As a travel services company, we are experiencing serious difficulties in rescheduling bookings for passengers as a result of the disruptions,” P. N. J. Kumar, CEO, Caesars Travels Group told the Kuwait Times. According to him, the prolonged strike without any immediate solution in sight has critically undermined the reputation of Air India as India’s flag carrier.

According to officials from Mumbai, Cash-strapped Air India has suffered a loss of around Rs. 500 crores due to the 45-day-old pilots’ strike, forcing the airline management to extend its curtailed international flight plan till July 31. The strike has crippled its international operations and the airline is only operating 38 international flights out of the original 45 services now. The management has resorted to sacking striking pilots though such punitive measures have thus far failed to deter striking pilots.

Soaring airfares

With the Air India pilot strike continuing unabated, fares of airlines operating from in and out of Kuwait to various Indian destinations have gone up more than 200 percent, soaring even beyond the usual peak season prices, industry sources admit. “It is like making hay while the sun shines. Today the fares are exorbitant on all airlines making it hard for people to look for an alternative booking,” Suresh Mathur, Secretary, Kozhikode District NRI Association told the Kuwait Times.

But David Abraham, General Manager, House of Travels, Kuwait said that airfares are always high during summer peak season. “I admit there are some disruptions, but the impact of the AI strike on fares is minimal. The fares are going up because of the heavy demand,” he pointed out.

With the strike entering the 42nd day yesterday, several Indian community leaders also started voicing their anger over India

government’s callous attitude towards the strike. Calicut District NRI Association recently convened a meeting in which representatives of Indian community organizations aired their simmering discontent over the situation.

“There is only one solution. It is political,” said Sathar Kunnil, Coordinator of the Karippur Airport Users Movement. “Air India is a state-run airline and the government is managing it. So the onus is completely on the government to find a solution to the issue,” he added.

According to him, all Indian politicians irrespective of their party affiliations are indifferent towards the grievances of non-resident Indians (NRIs). In scathing remarks, he said, “The misery of the expats over air travel has been a perennial issue. All the political leaders both ruling party and opposition are fully aware of the problem. But they are not up to finding a lasting solution to the problem. Their interest is confined only to attracting more NRI investments into the country or collecting funds and donations for their party,” he added.

“Giving just the money back doesn’t help the passengers. You know, at this 11th hour, it is hard to find a new booking to India. And if at all you manage one, you have to pay a price for that,” Simona Bakaya, a travel industry professional, told the Kuwait Times. “With the AI strike going on, I know it will be a messy affair this time. So, I cancelled my travel plan to India this summer,” Simona added.

Sajeev K Peter

21 June 2012

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