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Over 17,000 Airline Employees Stand To Lose Their ‘Permanent’ Jobs

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More than 17,000 employees of foreign airlines working at Mumbai airport, and 50,000 employees at six airports across the country, stand to lose their `permanent’ jobs in January, lay offs which have nothing to do with recession. These are repercussions of a government policy on “ground handling” that comes into force early next year.

A Directorate General of Civil Aviation circular on September 28, 2007, stated that for security reasons, all airlines including foreign carriers-operating from Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad-will have to outsource `ground handling jobs’ hitherto done by their employees from January 1, 2009, to an agency chosen by the airport operator.

Ground handling is important from the airline hospitality, security and safety point of view. It defines several pre/post flight functions like passenger check-in, baggage handling, transportation of passengers and baggages to/from aircraft, liaisoning with local authorities etc. Other ground handling jobs include aircraft handling (marshalling, security, parking, etc), aircraft servicing (liasioning for fuelling and defuelling, cabin equipment, cooling, heating), aircraft cleaning, and loading/unloading of passengers, baggage and cargo.

In view of this government order, airlines have decided to retrench these Indian employees. Currently, foreign airlines have the option of self ground handling or outsourcing it to specialised companies. With many airlines opting for self ground handling, airports have multiple ground handling agencies. “Having multiple ground handling agencies in an airport poses security risk. If only one or two companies are entrusted with this job there can be better monitoring. The airport operators will float tenders to choose the ground handling company, and foreign airlines will buy services from them,” said a civil aviation ministry official.

The first round of lay-offs got going at Air France’s Mumbai office on Wednesday. “December 10 was the deadline set by the airline for its 27 employees to decide: either sign the airline’s voluntary retirement programme or risk retrenchment next month. All have signed the retirement programme,” said an airline employee.”Now it remains to be seen whether we will be thrown out on January 1. But they said if the DGCA revokes the circular, our jobs will stay,” the employee added.

According to a conservative estimate, there are about 50,000 foreign airline employees in the above mentioned six airports, 80 per cent of whom have `permanent’ jobs. Other airlines have also alerted their Indian employees to the possibility of job losses. “Those who stand to lose their jobs include permanent employees in their mid-40s and 50s, drawing an average of Rs 50,000 a month,” said a Gulf Air official.

Employees of three airlines-British Airways, Saudia and Gulf Air-have moved Bombay High Court, seeking a stay on the January 1 implementation deadline. The petition also points out that airports in London, Frankfurt, Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong etc allow self ground handling by airlines. The official added that the governmentsaid in an affidavit that the move was being taken for “commercial interests of the airport operator as well”. “The airport operator will hand over the ground handling contract to the agency which pays it the most. How will it ensure better service for passengers? How can the government justify our job losses?,” he added.

“A single ground handling agency will compromise on services we provide our passengers. It’s these little differences in service standards that make a huge difference in times of competition. For instance, Air France makes boarding announcements in French, BA has a special service group of women in saris who escort first-class passengers, etc,” he said, adding each airline also conducts refresher courses and online tests for its employees at regular intervals. “It is like saying airlines cannot have their own flight attendants and should outsource the cabin crew’s work.”

The ministry source said the cabinet is yet to approve the policy. “When it came up for clearance 10 days ago, it was referred to the Committee of Secretaries for a re-look given the present day security concerns in the country,” said a source.

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