New Delhi: Even as the Delhi High Court asked the 800-odd pilots to call off their agitation and resume work in larger public interest, Air India sacked six leaders of the striking pilots on Wednesday who were demanding pay hike and derecognized their association.

The services of ICPA leaders, including its president Capt A S Bhinder and general secretary Capt Rishabh Kapur, were terminated by the management, senior airline officials said. Two other agitating pilots were suspended.

Declaring the strike as illegal, the management derecognised the ICPA and sealed its offices in Delhi and Mumbai.

Following an urgent hearing of AI management's plea against the strike, Justice Gita Mittal of the Delhi High Court barred the pilots from resorting to any kind of demonstration and asked them to resume work in "larger public interest."

Addressing a press conference, Civil Aviation Minister Vayalar Ravi said AI's action against striking leaders was "right" and asserted that ICPA's demands cannot be accepted.

"They (ICPA) cannot dictate terms to us," the minister said even as he appealed to the striking pilots to cooperate and help the airline come out of its crisis.

24 AI flights cancelled

At least 24 AI flights were cancelled since midnight including several on the Delhi-Mumbai sector and those to Kathmandu, Bangkok, Raipur, Aurangabad, Srinagar, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Leh.

Passengers had harrowing time with several flights getting delayed by over three hours.

While the management asked the striking pilots to give up their "irresponsible and unreasonable" stance and return to the negotiating table, the agitators said they were focusing on the "mismanagement" that had resulted in the financial losses to the airline and demanded a CBI probe.

To tide over the crisis, the national carrier has decided to rope in 150 management or executive pilots to operate the flights, the officials said.

No-frill carrier SpiceJet, in a statement, said it had directed its teams across all airports to accept and accommodate Air India passengers on request from the national carrier.

Terming the strike by its pilots as "unfortunate and ill-advised", Air India CMD Arvind Jadhav said, "now when such aggressive efforts are underway to resolve issues concerning every section of the employees, this abrupt action by the ICPA was certainly uncalled for.

"Why are some pilots being impatient, being irresponsible, being unreasonable, being adamant on tarnishing the image of the company and being totally unconcerned towards the convenience of our esteemed patrons and passengers",
Jadhav said in an open letter to all employees.

The airline CMD said "the ICPA's midnight decision to go on strike is unfortunate and ill-advised. They had joined reconciliation process by attending the proceedings/hearings being conducted by the Central Labour Commissioner.

"They had given a commitment, including to the High Court, that they would not precipitate the situation by causing disruption. They were also expected to present their case before the Expert Committee led by Justice (retd) Dharmadhikari – which began functioning this week and have scheduled meetings/hearing even today".

Jadhav told the pilots to "take up your issues with Justice Dharmadhikari Committee. Make your voices heard. You have the management's support for resolution of your issues.

But let's be positive and reasonable".

Late Tuesday night, the ICPA gave the letter to the management intimating their decision to go ahead with the strike, after the tripartite conciliation talks before the
Chief Labour Commissioner failed.

'CMD to be held responsible'

The ICPA, which has a strength of over 800 pilots of the erstwhile Indian Airlines, held the CMD "solely responsible for the financial mess" in the airline and "sabotaging" its future.
The ICPA General Secretary, who was sacked on Wednesday, said that prior to the merger, Air India and Indian Airlines had a loss Rs 455 crore and Rs 280 crore respectively, which rose to Rs 16,000 crore within three years and that too after hiring consultancy firm Deloitte at a cost of Rs 90 crore.

Kapur said that "the management's intention seems very well scripted -- to buy new airplanes, upgrade the machinery (like SITA, SAT, IOCC) at a whopping Rs 800 crore and kill the morale of the employees so that they agitate, and then make way to sell the airline in distress."

The ICPA leader also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging him to review the appointment of the "high headed and dishonest management" to restore the past glory of the airline.

"The Government of India has all the machinery and tools to investigate all the shortcomings of this management and hold them accountable. We, the ICPA, now demand a CBI inquiry or any appropriate body to inquire into the scams of the airlines," Kapur said in the letter.

Pilots demand pay parity

The agitating pilots, all from the erstwhile Indian Airlines, have demanded pay parity with their counterparts in Air India, saying their fixed salary component was much lower than the latter's.

Air India now has a strength of over 1,200 pilots with ICPA having about 800 and the remaining 400 who mostly operate international flights owing allegiance to the Indian Pilots' Guild.