As the Air India pilots’ strike rages into day six, many UAE residents are worried that summer travel plans may come to a standstill as the latest threat to possibly halt the carrier’s international operations looms in the horizon.
Those who are yet to book are already voicing concerns that travel to India may also get even more expensive in the peak summer months with other carriers hiking airfares to take advantage of Air India’s troubles as competition to the sub-continent lessens further in wake of Kingfisher shutting down UAE operations earlier this year.
The airline has already suspended its bookings for international flights till May 15 for some sectors.
Calls made to Air India’s local office to check on its UAE operations by Emirates 24|7 were evaded.
While Air India’s UAE flights have not been affected thus far by the ongoing strike, its budget arm Air India Express has seen a few cancellations, including a Dubai-Calicut flight last Wednesday, along with a change in timings of a Mangalore and Pune flight since the strike erupted last Tuesday.
Meanwhile, its GCC operations has seen several setbacks in the past six days, with Jeddah and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia being affected on Air India, while Kuwait, Doha and Dammam facing cancellations to Mangalore, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram.
Yet, even as the troubled Indian carrier has cancelled 22 flights in total today – two from Mumbai and 20 from Delhi – the competition has already announced an increase in frequency with Jet Airways announcing a fourth daily flight connecting Dubai and Mumbai from May 18.
Air India pilots have been calling in sick since May 7, to protest against the decision to train pilots from Indian Airlines for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which is scheduled to be added to the carrier’s fleet later this month; the argument is that a measure should be taken so seniority of existing Air India pilots is preserved.
Till date, Air India management has sacked a total of 76 pilots for not reporting to work, while Delhi High Court had declared the strike illegal; but that has not deterred the 200-odd pilots on strike.
Media reports state that a letter has also been written to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) asking it to cancel the licenses of 11 office bearers of the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG) whose services have been terminated; the pilots have one week to reply.
Meanwhile, international operations for Air India allegedly hangs in the balance, with The Times of India quoting high placed sources with the carrier as saying: “Executive pilots say we must talk to IPG. Our stand has been clear from day one that they must join work first.
“If things deteriorate or hundreds of pilots remain away from cockpits, we will shut down the international operations.
“Only foreign flights operated by erstwhile Indian Airlines and those operated by expats, re-hired retired pilots and on wet leased aircraft (that come with crew) will remain.”
Summer travel hits turbulence
Many residents are already wary of booking with Air India this summer, predicting more turbulence ahead in their take off schedules.
“I am not too keen to book with Air India until this matter is completely resolved,” said Akash Mahajan, a Dubai resident who is planning to travel to Delhi this June for his wedding.
He added: “Why book with an airline whose future is hanging in the balance, when I can pay an extra few hundred dirhams and travel secure in the knowledge that I will make it to my destination without any hiccups of strikes.”
Another Dubai resident, who did not wish to be named, said: “I have already been bitten once when Kingfisher cancelled their UAE operations and left me hanging in the balance to sort out my refund and make alternate bookings.
“I refuse to become a victim of yet another mismanaged Indian airline that cannot get its act together and leaves its passengers stranded to make alternate travel plans at much higher airfares with different carriers.”
Meanwhile, New Jersey-bound S. Mehta is irritated because he cannot get a seat on Emirates mid-week as many stranded Indian passengers are opting to book themselves on the Gulf carrier to head to the US.
He said: “I was told by customer service here that economy class on Emirates is booked out to New York, with 100 plus passengers on waitlist most of this week, because Indian passengers who have been stranded courtesy Air India’s cancellation of its Newark, New Jersey flight and its Toronto sector are now frantically booking themselves on Emirates.
“I can almost see airfares rising on these routes in the immediate future as other carriers take advantage of this sudden surge in demand.”
Jet Airways has already announced plans to enhance its connectivity to the UAE with a fourth daily service between Dubai and Mumbai. This noon service will commence operations from May 18, 2012.
Jet Airways also operates daily direct flights to Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad, which makes the additional flight from Mumbai to Dubai the seventh daily direct service on this sector.
Sudheer Raghavan, Chief Commercial Officer, Jet Airways said in a statement: “The new flight would also help in connecting our guests flying in from Tier II and III cities following an increased demand due to the flow of tourist and business traffic to and from Dubai.”
Airfares to rise this summer?
In a welcome move, DCGA has taken a stand, warning Indian carriers to not take advantage of the Air India industrial unrest even as fares on certain routes have shot up by 15 to 20 per cent in a month, when no significant change in the cost of operations of airlines has been recorded.
But that doesn’t take into account rising fuel costs, which are already burdening most carriers.
Speaking to Emirates 24|7 earlier, Qatar Airways chief Akbar Al Baker stated that air travel could hit a high note this year if fuel prices continue to peak, adding that all airlines are equally burdened by the rising costs.
He said: “Fuel price continues to be a challenge to all airlines. In the case of Qatar Airways, we are hedged up until 2015; however, fuel does make up the lion's share of an airline’s annual cost structure.”
Al Baker stated that currently, fuel accounts for 41 per cent of Qatar Airways cost structure, which is approximately five per cent up from the 36 per cent it accounted for in the 2010-2011.
When quizzed if airfares could rise further in 2012 because of the fuel, which has recently averaged $105 a barrel, Al Baker said: “I maintain that airfares will fluctuate depending on the cost of fuel. Could airfares rise this year? Yes. But we can't predict anything more.”
Meanwhile, Emirates posted a 72.1 per cent slump in net profit in 2011, as its fuel bill surged 44.4 per cent to $ 6.6bn, the Dubai carrier announced Thursday.