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Airlines threaten to ground flyers on August 18

Taking a leaf out of employees’ labour union books, private airlines on Friday threatened to suspend domestic operations on August 18 if the government did not give in to their demand for a bailout package in the form of lower sales tax on fuel and airport taxes. Never before has an entire industry threatened to pull out from the market to arm-twist the government into buying its line.

“The airline industry realizes its role in the life of the nation. But in view of the indifference shown by the government, it may not be able to continue its operations… and so we have decided not to operate nationwide services on August 18,” Anil Baijal, secretary general of the Federation of Indian Airlines, the lobby group of airlines in India, announced at the Jet Airways office in Mumbai. “The idea is to highlight the urgency for the government to intervene urgently. If, however, an adequate response is not received, member airlines will be compelled to suspend their services for an indefinite period.” Baijal did not spell out the nature of the response or the level of commitment the airlines are expecting from the government in the next 18 days.

For now, the government has little sympathy. “We understand the problems being faced by the aviation sector, but do not support any move that will inconvenience the people. My advice to the airlines is to engage in a dialogue with the government,” said civil aviation minister Praful Patel.

Although the relationship between governments and airline operators worldwide has never been an easy one, the threat by Indian private airlines is a first in the century-old history of the global airline industry. If it is indeed carried out, it will mean cancellation of about 12,000 domestic flights by airlines such as Kingfisher, Kingfisher Red, Jet Airways, Jetlite, IndiGo, Go Air and Spice Jet on August 18. The only option for the domestic air traveller will be the 300 scheduled flights operated by Air India and the additional ones it may mount to meet the demand.

The no-fly decision was taken following an afternoon meeting attended by Jet Airways’ Naresh Goyal, Kingfisher Airlines’ Vijay Mallya and other members of FIA except those from Air India and Paramount Airways. Following the meeting, Baijal read out a statement to the media which began with the financial difficulties faced by the industry. The total losses incurred by the Indian airline industry in 2008-09 are estimated to be Rs 10,000 crore, he said, listing ATF sales tax, airport charges, depreciation in the value of India rupee, the economic meltdown and terrorists attacks as contributory factors.

Patel stressed on Friday that tax on ATF was a state issue, and the aviation ministry had been requesting the states for the last few years to see reason. The minister declared that Air India would not participate in the decision of “select private airlines” and would, instead, mount additional services on August 18 to reduce inconvenience to the public.

The airline bosses refused to put a figure on the losses they would suffer if the threat was put to force. When asked whether suspending operations entirely did not amount to violating the provisions of the Scheduled Operators Permit that allows airlines to operate flight services, Mallya said that passengers who had booked on that day would be given a complete refund.

Sudhakara Reddy, president, Air Passengers Association of India, a consumer rights organization, was scathing. “The losses are of their own making,” he said. “The two big airlines, Jet and Kingfisher, bought loss-making airlines like Air Deccan and Air Sahara. The government, on the other hand, gave airlines benefits like a credit period for payment to oil companies and airports. Then again, IndiGo and Spice Jet made a profit in the last quarter, which means there is a turnaround in the industry. When they make a profit, do they share it with the government or public?”

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