Air India cancels flights as pilots strike for pay

NEW DELHI (AP) — Air India pilots demanding more pay refused to work for a fifth day Sunday, defying a court order to end their strike and forcing the beleaguered national carrier to cancel three-fourths of its scheduled flights.

The airline said the strike that started Wednesday was now costing it around 12 million rupees ($2.7 million) a day.

Air India canceled all but 40 of its 165 scheduled flights Sunday, leaving thousands more passengers stranded around the country after similar cancellations each day since Wednesday.

It said that while 90 percent of domestic routes were affected, international flights were still operating between India and the United States, Europe, China and the Middle East. The airline has been hiring chartered flights for some routes.

Last week, the Delhi High Court ordered the 800 striking pilots to call off their action, saying it was “brazen and smacking of sheer arrogance,” and launched contempt of court proceedings Saturday when they refused to go back to work.

The pilots are demanding higher pay, an investigation into alleged mismanagement leading to losses of over 160 billion rupees ($3.6 billion), and removal of Arvind Jadhav as the airline’s managing director. The Indian Commercial Pilot Association said Saturday it had no choice but to continue its strike since neither the government nor Air India’s management had invited the pilots for talks.

The airline, however, has threatened to fire the striking pilots. Nine already have been let go and six suspended.

Other carriers were reportedly increasing fares as desperate Air India passengers looked for alternatives.

India’s once-proud national carrier has been losing about a billion dollars a year as it struggles with the legacy of a poorly executed 2007 merger, debt costs, a swollen staff and a toxic gulf between management and powerful unions.

The government extended hundreds of millions in bailout funds last year to help the company weather the global economic slowdown and compete with international rivals.

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