(MENAFN - Arab News) Air India has canceled 13 flights to and from Saudi Arabia amid an ongoing pilots strike that has left thousands of passengers stranded at several Gulf and Indian airports since Tuesday.
The canceled flights also include four Air India flights scheduled for May 14 and 15 between Riyadh and Mumbai, said Prabhu Chandran, Air India manager in Riyadh, yesterday.
"All these flights scheduled from Mumbai and Delhi to Riyadh and Jeddah were canceled following the strike by Air India pilots, which entered its seventh day Monday," said Chandran. He pointed out that he has been trying to help outbound passengers by transferring their tickets to other carriers and refunding the cost of their tickets in full. "Me and my team are there to extend all possible help to each and every passenger booked on Air India," he said.
The Indian national air carrier's management had to cancel a number of international flights including those operating on Saudi-India sector because of the continuing strike. "We are making full ticket refunds in Riyadh as well as in Jeddah," said Chandran. He admitted that the cancellation of the flights has led to passengers as well as Air India officials facing a lot of hardships in the Kingdom.
Referring to the efforts exerted by the Indian government to restore normal operations, another official said a contingency plan will be implemented within two or three days whereby a guaranteed minimum international operation will be in place.
"We are monitoring the situation and informing passengers in advance about the flight situation," said the official without giving his name.
"However, many Indian workers living in the Kingdom are facing troubles and a number of them are stranded at Mumbai and Hyderabad," said Mohammed Qaiser, Naba marketing manager. Qaiser, who also heads a prominent community organization known as Hum Hindustani, said some of the passengers bound for Riyadh traveled to Mumbai from Hyderabad only to find that the flight to the Saudi capital has been canceled.
He pointed out that Umrah pilgrims are the worst sufferers because they come to the Kingdom with limited funds and for a limited number of days.
A large number of people meanwhile are worried that their travel plans, especially in summer, may come to a standstill. Those who are yet to book are already voicing concerns that travel to India may also get more expensive in the peak summer months with other carriers hiking airfares to take advantage of Air India's troubles as competition to the Subcontinent lessens further after Kingfisher shut down some of its operations earlier this year. Air India has already suspended its bookings for international flights until May 15 for some sectors.
A statement released by Air India said about 350 pilots had reported sick as part of a strategy to press the management to accept their demands in a dispute over training. They are protesting against former Indian Airlines pilots who moved to Air India when the two state-run companies merged in 2007 being trained for new Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes. They say the plan threatens their career prospects.
"At least 16 international flights to different destinations originating from India stand canceled today," said Air India spokesman Prasad Rao in New Delhi without giving further details. Flights into New Delhi from Paris, Riyadh, Toronto and Tokyo were among those canceled, as were those from Mumbai to New York, he confirmed.
Among the Gulf countries, the UAE routes appear to be operating as scheduled, with no flight cancellations announced on the airline's website or on those of the country's airports. However, media reports say residents remain concerned about possible disruption after an Air India Express flight from Thiruvananthapuram to Muscat and another between Sharjah and Calicut were canceled last week.
Prasad said 71 Air India pilots had been sacked over the strike in a crackdown to try to force the others back to work during the country's important May-June tourism season. The state-run carrier has some 800 pilots on its payroll. "There is concern about passengers and I would like to reiterate that there is no reason to strike," India's Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh said on Monday.
The Indian Pilots' Guild at the weekend said it was ready to negotiate an end to the walkout or strike. Air India is facing problems due to rising fuel prices, competition from low-cost rivals and labor disputes. The Indian government last month cleared a 5.75 billion bailout package to help cash-strapped Air India, which has a 8.3 billion debt as of today.