Delhi HC dismisses plea against reduction in allowances of Air India pilots due to COVID-19

The Delhi High Court has refused to interfere with the Centre’s decision reducing allowances of Air India pilots on account of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, saying the pilots, who were taking home lakhs of rupees in spite of the cut when many others in the country had lost their livelihood, cannot claim victimisation.

A division bench of Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Subramonium Prasad took judicial notice of the complete lockdown in 2020, when all aviation operations were suspended, as well as the fact that pilots across various airlines lost their jobs but Air India ensured there were no lay-offs.

Dismissing an appeal by Executive Pilots Association against a single bench order rejecting its plea assailing the reduction, the bench remarked, “The fact that a pilot even without the allowance takes home a pay package of Rs 6 to 7 lakh as compared to many other people in the country who lost their entire livelihood during the pandemic cannot raise a grouse that they have been victims of reduction in pay and allowances.”

The appellant had challenged before the single judge several orders issued by the aviation ministry in 2020 directing salary cuts of employees of then the government-owned Air India.

The court observed the decision by the authorities for “proportionate reduction of the allowances across the board” was not arbitrary and it was taken to secure the livelihood of its employees during “an unprecedented situation”.

“The lockdown measures have equally impacted the employees and the employers. All industries or establishments are of a different nature and financial capacity and while some may bear the financial burden of payment of wages etc., the others may not be able to do so equally. A balance has to be struck between two competitive claims as survival of the company was of paramount importance,” the court said in its order passed on July 3.

“This court has to take judicial notice of the fact that many pilots across various airlines have lost their jobs but Air India ensured that there are no lay offs…The cut was across the board for pilots who were flying and those who were not flying in the Vande Bharat Mission,” it added.

The court noted that Air India was in a cash deficit of more than Rs 250 crore, and any decision taken by the government at that time was purely a policy decision to keep the airline afloat.

Observing that “courts do not run governments”, the bench said it is not within its ambit to “interfere with the impugned Office Orders passed by the Respondents during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the pandemic was an unprecedented situation”.

It is not for the court to don a cloak of executive and decide upon merits of a policy designed by experts in the sector, it said.

The Executive Pilots Association had contended before the single judge that instead of rewarding its member pilots for their courage and role in Vande Bharat Missions, for which they were lauded by the aviation minister, their allowances and flying hours were being reduced.

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Vande Bharat Missions were launched to bring back Indians stranded abroad due to COVID-19 restrictions. The allowances which were reduced were flying allowances, executive flying allowances, special pay, wide-body allowance, domestic layover allowance and high-altitude allowance, among others, all of which exclusively affect pilots, the petition had said.

In the order passed on February 7, 2022, the single judge had said no case of discrimination was made out and “rather there is a justifiable ground in reducing the allowances in the manner they have done for the pilots and engineers”.

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