Vistara has for now said that it is committed to providing “fair and equitable opportunities to its employees.”

But as Air India prepares for merger there is still a sense of unease among the employees.

Though the issue was festering for a month, leading to cancellation of 100 flights or more per day, it concluded well with the CEO apologising in a town hall that he will consider the working conditions of the pilots and ensure work-life balance and rostering.

While there are two issues to this, one being the merger between Air India, Vistara and Air India Express resulting in bringing the salaries on a par with Vistara which was doing well as compared to the other two airlines.

However, this episode has brought out the larger issue of having labour laws specific to the aviation industry. At present, industrial labour laws apply to aviation, with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation ‘codes’ tweaking them. However, these codes do not have clear legislative sanction.

Back in 1996, this author had a chance to meet and work with Dewang Mehta of Nasscom briefly on the need for sector-specific laws, especially for the ITeS industry which was still at its infancy.

It was the first service sector to provide special working conditions for the employees, especially women who could work late night. This has led to the IT and ITeS sectors being one of the largest employers — of women as well.

The same holds good for the Indian aviation industry. All the larger markets have specific legislation to provide proper working conditions not only for pilots but also for other employees in the aviation sector.

Highly regulated

Due to the risk in aviation operations, it is perhaps the most regulated industry due to emphasis on safety and health and has the most stringent norms — from the drivers having a special driving licence to drive airside to the pilots who have to be trained continually.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in Europe, and other national aviation authorities enforce strict standards for safety and health, directly impacting employment practices in the industry. The rules are arrived at through a consultative process.

Asian airlines in the Middle East and South-East Asia have found solutions for their own problems based on their local conditions and needs, considering that airlines such as Emirates, Etihad, Qatar and Singapore Airlines are critical for the local economies.

It is important that we find an Indian solution for our problems through consensus but, at the same time, see that the international standards are not violated. The unique operational demands of the aviation industry necessitate specific regulations concerning working hours and rest periods for crew members.

Laws and regulations, often informed by scientific research on circadian rhythms and fatigue, stipulate maximum flight duty periods, minimum rest times between shifts, and annual leave entitlements.

These rules are designed to ensure workers and passenger safety.

The aviation industry is no stranger to change, with technological advancements, structural changes in industry, and global events continually reshaping the landscape of aviation labour.

The rise of low-cost carriers (LCCs), the impact of digital technologies on employment, and the unprecedented /challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic have all necessitated adaptations in labour laws and employment practices.

As the industry evolves, so will the legal frameworks that protect and regulate the work of aviation professionals.

From safety and health regulations to collective bargaining agreements, these laws ensure that the rights and well-being of workers are safeguarded amidst the complexities of global aviation operations.

Low cost vs low fares

The other challenge is that a distinction should be made between LCCs and low-fare airlines. The latter tended to play by the rules — for example, in terms of labour, airport obligations, leasing aircraft, and maintenance.

Low-fare airlines were based on a simple point-to-point and often regional model, whereas LCCs were based on lowering costs, often by attempting to circumvent the rules — for example, by outsourcing labour on various aspects of airline operations.

Furthermore, governments play a pivotal role in balancing the interests of employers and workers.

By fostering dialogue and collaboration among stakeholders, policymakers can develop regulations that promote fairness and transparency along with adherence to international standards, such as those outlined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to maintain consistency and equity in tariffs and charges.

In conclusion, the Vistara episode is a poignant reminder of the importance of sector-specific labour laws in the aviation industry.

These laws form the foundation of a safe, fair, and sustainable workforce, essential for the continued growth and prosperity of air travel.

As the industry evolves, stakeholders must remain vigilant in adapting regulations to address emerging challenges while upholding the core principles of fairness, safety, and respect for all aviation professionals.

The writer has worked in infrastructure, aviation and SEZ in the last 25 years and is currently a doctoral candidate in NALSAR, Hyderabad