A crisis at Jet Airways – once India’s second-biggest airline – deepened on Tuesday as an increasingly worried government called for an emergency meeting, angry passengers demanded refunds and pilots threatened to go on strike over unpaid salaries.
India’s civil aviation minister, Suresh Prabhu, asked his officials to call for a meeting to discuss grounding of flights, advance bookings, cancellations, refunds, and any potential safety issues, at the cash-strapped carrier.
Saddled with debt of more than US$1 billion, Jet Airways is struggling to stay aloft. It has delayed payments to banks, suppliers, pilots and lessors – some of whom have started cancelling their lease deals with the airlines.
Forced to ground aircraft and cancel hundreds of flights as it awaits a restructuring of its debt, the airline is currently operating only 41 aircraft – just a third of its original fleet – according to India’s aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
The regulator said in a statement that the situation is fluid and the airline may be forced to reduce its fleet further in coming weeks.
Several angry passengers were spotted demanding refunds for cancelled flights at the airline’s offices in Mumbai earlier on Tuesday.
The union that represents Jet Airways’ pilots has also said that they have decided to stop flying from April 1 if the company does not have a rescue plan in place by March 31 and does not provide a proper road map on paying their overdue salaries.
“It is not about the salary right now, it is about whether we are going to survive,” one pilot told television news channel ET Now.
Jet Airways did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 25-year-old airline is in talks with its lenders – state-run banks led by State Bank of India – and its biggest shareholder, Abu Dhabi-based carrier Etihad, to secure a rescue deal but talks have dragged on and it is struggling to finalise a plan.
While on the surface its future still hangs in the balance, there has been behind-the-scenes support from the government indicating that a bailout is likely. The Indian government has asked state-run banks to rescue the privately held airline without pushing it into bankruptcy, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks to avert thousands of job losses weeks before a general election.