A daily bulletin of news & opinion

14 December 2010

Could a “fat-suit” contribute to the demise of India’s once-proud state-owned airline, Air India?

The embattled carrier is facing a decade-long backpay bill to a former air hostess it sacked in 2001 for being overweight. Additionally, the Kolkata High Court has ordered the airline to give Neepa Dhar, 44, her job back.

Coincidentally, the ruling came just days after the airline sent letters to around 10 former air hostesses dismissed last year for being overweight, inviting them to rejoin the cabin crew ranks, in the face of a severe staff shortage.

“We need people, so now if they meet the parameters they can come back,” says Air India spokesman Kamaljeet Rattan. Air India refused to specify how much money would have to be paid out, and insisted that the weight requirements were not unreasonable.

“It is a requirement of the job; the weight limits are prescribed by the rules of the job,” says Rattan. “They’re not unique to Air India; everyone has them.”

Dhar had joined the airline in 1987 but was grounded in 1997 due to being over the airline’s weight restrictions. She was fired four years later, despite seeking a transfer to ground staff. She had claimed the weight gain was a side-effect of medication taken to combat a high altitude phobia.

“The judgement was expected, so I don’t see it having any grave impact on the airline,” says Kapil Kaul, CEO of the India and Middle East chapter of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation. “But broadly, it sends a message to Air India to overhaul its recruitment process or ensure that there are mechanisms in place to retrain employees.”

The weighty problems come at a particularly delicate time for the loss-making airline. Air India is deeply in the red, to the tune of just under $9bn (€6.6bn). There are reports it is so cash-strapped that roughly 1,000 of its 50,000-strong workforce are owed wages, and the airline will be unable to pay staff after March – no doubt making it hard to retain much-needed employees in an expanding aviation market.

The carrier is seeking a fresh injection of government bailout funds in the vicinity of $260m (€193m). In the wake of falling passenger numbers and rising fuel costs hitting the airline hard during the global financial crisis, it received an earlier package of $173m (€128m) last year from the government, which insisted on a shake-up of the airline to return it to profitability.

Despite a modest turnaround in its fortunes since the cash injection and thanks to a rebound in the sector, Air India looks increasingly like it could be stripped down and sold off, or privatised.

“Given the current circumstances, it’s highly doubtful Air India can turnaround,” says Kaul. “The government really needs to apply a time limit and decide what to do.”


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