Indian airports largely unaffected despite protest

March 12th, 2008 - 4:48 pm ICT by admin  

(Lead National Roundup)
By Prashant K. Nanda
New Delhi, March 12 (IANS) Air traffic across India remained largely unaffected Wednesday despite a nationwide protest by about 20,000 airport employees opposed to the closure of the existing airports in Bangalore and Hyderabad. But some flights were hit due to the “non-cooperation movement” - the protestors are not calling it a strike — in the national capital. There were warnings of disruptions elsewhere too.

About 500 Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel trained in airfield safety, fire fighting and aircraft marshalling were deployed at 21 major civilian airports to ensure smooth take offs and landings, officials told IANS.

A few flights from the capital’s Indira Gandhi International Airport were delayed but operations were not badly affected by the indefinite protest by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) employees that got underway at midnight Tuesday after talks with the government broke down.

But officials here admitted that if the 1,700 employees stayed away for long, it would affect baggage handling, sanitation and other ground activities.

Ignoring the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) the government has invoked, the employees are not calling their protest a strike to escape legal action against them.

The de facto strike is to oppose the closure of the existing airports in Hyderabad and Bangalore, where new airports are set to open shortly to give a makeover to the Indian civil aviation sector.

In Mumbai, the country’s commercial capital, about 2,500 AAI employees joined the strike, said AAI Employees Union leader Dilip Gujjar. But operations in the airport that has been privatized were almost normal.

Officials said that since midnight Tuesday, when the protest began, all domestic and international flights flew out on time.

“We have resources to handle the strike for at least a week,” said the spokesperson for Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL). “Housekeeping will be outsourced, and for emergency services we have a reserve team.”

M.K. Ghoshal, a union leader, said the protest would go ahead as talks with the civil aviation ministry failed Tuesday.

Similarly, the Pune Lohegaon Airport officials said they are operating like “any other day”. “All the systems are in place,” Deepak Shastri, director of Airport Authority of Pune, told IANS.

At Hyderabad, one of the two focal points of the dispute, union leaders claimed that all 270 employees at the existing Begumpet airport had struck work.

But officials claimed that alternate arrangements are in place to ensure normal flow of flights movement.

The airport at Begumpet in the heart of the city, catering to 250 flights daily, is to be closed down once the new international airport at Shamshabad, 35 km away, becomes operational March 16.

The employees are boycotting their ground handling and emergency duties to demand that the central government pull out of an agreement with the GMR-led consortium, which stipulates that the existing airport will be shut once the new one is operational.

“Our fight is not just for jobs. It is for the airport, which is making a profit of Rs.2.5 billion every year. Why should it not continue?” asked V.S. Gupta, a union leader.

No disruptions were reported from Bangalore and flights took off and landed on schedule, an airport official said.

“The strike would not affect flights here as the air traffic control is manned by the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) staff and the ground support services are handled by various airlines,” AAI general manager B.R. Sena said.

In Chennai, airport director Dinesh Kumar said both domestic and international terminals functioned normally.

In Kerala, the three international airports in Thiruvananthapuram, Cochin and Kozhikode operated smoothly. Ditto was the story at the Sardar Vallabhbhai International Airport in Ahmedabad.

Employee union leaders said that around 180 workers were on strike there.

In Kolkata, the airport was near normal and at least 35 flights had flown till forenoon. ATC officials said flight movements were largely normal.

But passengers have been advised to travel light. The toilets at the airports too suffered after the cleaning staff stayed away from work.

In the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, “the operations are completely smooth. Air force personnel are on duty at the airport. International flights from here have not been affected”, airport director Arun Talwar said.

In Chandigarh, airport controller Sunil Dutt said flights were not expected to be hit as requisite backup plans were in place. Bhubaneswar and Bhopal also remained unaffected.

(With inputs from Jaideep Sareen, Sujoy Dhar, Jatindra Dash, V. Jagannathan, Mohammed Shafeeq, V.N. Balakrishnan, Sanu George, Jeevan Mathew, Varada Bhatt, V. Vijayalakshmi, Fakir Balaji, Sanjay Sharma, Sanjay Singh.)

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