Air India Express has been facing major disruptions. Over 90 international and domestic flights were grounded due to a mass “sick leave” by senior cabin crew. The situation began to unfold on Monday evening as many crew members called in sick. With insufficient staff to operate flights, the airline had to cancel “scores of flights” at airports like Kochi, Calicut, and Bangalore.

Air India Express acknowledged unexpected flight delays and cancellations due to “a section of our cabin crew reporting sick at the last minute.” It said, “We apologize for the inconvenience and emphasize “that this situation does not reflect the standard of service we strive to provide.” 

However, businessline has learned that this comes after the Air India Express Employees Union (AIXEU), representing a portion of the cabin crew, addressed a letter to Air India Chairman Natarajan Chandrasekaran. The letter outlined employee concerns and highlighted anxieties surrounding Tata’s recent acquisition of Air India Express.

AIXEU expressed their disappointment with the Tata Group acquisition. They pointed out a disconnect between “Tata’s values of equality, integrity, transparency, and mutual respect, as outlined in the TATA Code of Conduct (TOOC) “and the reality faced by employees. The letter, written on April 26, detailed concerns like terminations despite assurances of “job security”.  

The AIXEU also said their voice was being silenced, stating “the concept of a whistleblower, emphasized in the TCOC seems to be one-sided... Air India Express Employees find themselves silenced when attempting to address grievances.” They asked Chandrasekaran to intervene and “redress our grievances which will help in maintaining peace and harmony in the company.”

Meanwhile, the matter has been escalated to the Labour commissioner. According to sources, the regional labour commissioner wrote a stern letter to the management of Air India Express. businessline has reviewed a copy of the email. 

It said, “The concerns of the Union are genuine. The management of Air India Express has not sent any responsible decision-makers to any of the conciliation proceedings. Mismanagement and blatant violations of labour laws were apparent. The HR department tried to mislead the conciliation officer with the wrong information and an idiotic interpretation of legal provisions.” It further added, “I suggest you send a high level committee to inquire into the grievances of the employees and the functioning of HR department and take corrective measures at the earliest to maintain harmonious industrial relations.”

The regional labour commissioner will seek inputs from aviation regulator DGCA in the ongoing conciliation process with respect to the dispute between Air India Express management and a section of the cabin crew members, according to a source.

Crew shortage

Meanwhile, Air India Express CEO Aloke Singh on Wednesday said that the airline will be reducing flights over the next few days. “Since last evening, over a 100 of our cabin crew colleagues have reported sick prior to their rostered flight duty, at the last minute, severely disrupting our operations. Because this action was mostly by colleagues assigned L1 role, the impact was disproportionate, disrupting 90+ flights even though other colleagues reported for duty,” the CEO said in a statement. “The disruptions have cascaded across the network, forcing us to curtail the schedules over the next few days. We had to do this to cope with the non-availability of crew and to recover schedules,” he added.

This incident follows similar challenges at another Tata airline, Vistara. In April, Vistara faced a pilot shortage that forced them to cut flights by 10 per cent, or roughly 25-30 daily cancellations. These staffing issues come amidst Tata’s consolidation efforts within the airline industry. The group plans to merge Air India Express and AIX Connect (formerly AirAsia India) with Vistara and Air India itself. This merger process, particularly the AIX Connect integration, has coincided with growing discontent among cabin crew members.

Also read: Kerala airports see passengers protest against AI Express’ last minute cancellations

Meanwhile, Kerala Opposition leader V.D. Satheesan wrote to the Aviation Minister expressing outrage over Air India Express cancelling flights from Kerala. He called the cancellations “unjustified” and said hundreds of passengers, including families with children, were stranded at airports. Passengers “learned about the decision after they arrived at the airport,” Satheesan wrote, and many risked losing their jobs by not being able to return to the Middle East on time. He criticized Air India for not providing “food or accommodation” to the stranded passengers and urged the Minister to intervene and “provide alternative arrangements.”

The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) took a firm stance in response to the spate of Air India Express flight cancellations. They demanded a detailed report from the airline, outlining the reasons behind the disruptions. MoCA emphasized the situation’s urgency and called for a prompt resolution to minimize passenger inconvenience. Furthermore, they reminded Air India Express of their obligation to adhere to the passenger care regulations established by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). These regulations ensure that passengers are treated fairly and receive proper assistance during flight cancellations or delays.

The airline said guests impacted by cancellations will be offered “a full refund or complimentary rescheduling to another date.” Passengers are advised to “check if their flight is affected” before heading to the airport.

(with inputs from V Sajeev Kumar)