Air India Friday began working on a contingency plan to salvage its international operations as the agitation by pilots continued for the fourth day forcing the airline to cancel 12 more flights and reschedule over a dozen.
The carrier's low cost subsidiary Air India Express also cancelled five flights in the day during which Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and apprised him about the steps being taken to resolve the crisis.
"We are working on a plan. This involves operating a bare minimum number of flights on the international sector. This plan may come into effect from early next week," a senior Air India official said.
"We have plans to bring in executive and reserve pilots to operate the flights. We also have plans to wet lease aircraft to operate on the affected routes."
The airline has stopped bookings on some of its ultra long-haul routes till May 15, effectively cancelling more than 15 flights per day to major sectors such as the US, Europe, and some other destinations like Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Air India also had grounded the bulk of its Boeing 777 fleet. The airline has 17 B-777 aircraft.
"We have almost grounded the fleet of 777s. Some are stationed in Mumbai and the rest are in Delhi. Some are operating to destinations like Hong Kong and Shanghai, depending on the availability of pilots," a senior official in the operations arm of the airline told IANS.
The airline is losing an estimated Rs.10 crore per day due to the agitation. Maintaining the grounded aircraft would further add to its expenditure.
The civil aviation minister earlier asked the pilots to return to work. "If they want to talk, they should come to work, and all issues can be discussed... We are going to take a long-term view," Singh told reporters after meeting the prime minister in his Parliament House office.
The pilots had said they were open to talks. But the government did not accept the offer saying there would be no negotiations till the pilots returned to work.
Singh said that he informed the prime minister that all efforts are being made to resolve the crisis. "Whatever we are doing is being done as per policies, by talking to everyone involved."
The minister further said that apart from the Boeing-787 Dreamliner training issue, other aspects of the strike could be resolved soon as the ministry was planning implementation of the Justice Dharmadhikari report which deals with better integration between Air India and Indian Airlines cadres.
"It (Dreamliner) was the original issue when they went on strike. As far as the issue of career progression is concerned, Dharmadhikari report deals with this and similar issues," Singh said.
"A discussion is on in the ministry on how to implement it. We will talk to the affected people when we implement the report."
The standoff between the Air India management and the striking pilots had its impact on both houses of parliament Thursday with members saying the agitation was destroying the national airline and sending wrong signals to the world outside.
Trouble started for the airline on Tuesday when pilots belonging to Indian Pilots Guild (IPG) - the pre-merger Air India pilots union - took mass sick leave protesting the move by the airline to provide Boeing-787 Dreamliner training to pilots from the erstwhile Indian Airlines.
The airline has also moved petitions in the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court. The apex court will hear the petition along with special leave petition (SLP) filed earlier by the Indian Commercial Pilots Association (ICPA), which is a union of erstwhile Indian Airlines pilots.
The airline has till now sacked around 46 pilots in the last few days and derecognised IPG.