The Air India pilot association has written to the national carrier complaining that the company’s leave without pay scheme was finalised without consulting the pilots, the Hindustan Times reported on Monday.

Air India last week began the process of sending some under-performing employees on compulsory leave without pay for up to a period of five years amid the coronavirus pandemic. It claimed the policy was a “win-win situation” for both parties, as it gives freedom to its employees to engage themselves with another employer for the said period, while also allowing the airline to save its cash flow.

However, the Indian Commercial Pilot Association, which is the representative body of the pilots employed with Air India, said that any such “unilateral change” by Air India from the agreed-upon wage settlement would be illegal and will not be in the interest of the national carrier at “this crucial juncture”, according to News18. “Such a situation has the potential to flare to an unprecedented magnitude,” the union added.

The association cited a press conference by Minister of Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri on July 16 where he stated the ministry is “in negotiation with the pilots”, claiming that this was “far from reality”. “It was not a negotiation, but the diktat of MoCA [Ministry of Civil Aviation] which was conveyed to us,” the letter added. “We would also like to place on record that the so called negotiation was ‘not harmonious’ in any aspect.”

In a separate letter to Air India Chairperson and Managing Director Rajiv Bansal, pilot unions – Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association and Indian Pilots’ Guild – have alleged that the airline’s management has proposed a 60% pay cut for pilots on a retrospective basis, but has suggested only a 3.5% to 4% reduction in the salary of the top management. The unions also alleged that pilots have not been paid 70% of their salaries since April 2020.

The two unions stated that while they were willing to negotiate a pay cut in line with current market conditions, it needed to be equitable across the board. “We are being compared to one of the leading low-cost private carriers and worst conditions are being cherry-picked to our disadvantage,” Indian Pilots’ Guild General Secretary Kanav Hingorani said.

However, the Air India management maintains that the decision to introduce salary cuts was made on the direction of the civil aviation ministry.

Meanwhile, the All India Cabin Crew Association also wrote to the management to lodge their protest against the leave without pay scheme and said it was a “smokescreen for retrenchment via a back door”.

Air India has more than 13,000 permanent employees, giving it a monthly wage bill of over Rs 230 crore. The airline, which has been going through a financial crisis, has been further hit due to coronavirus-induced restrictions. The Indian government banned all flights, domestic and international, in the end of March. Only some domestic flights were restarted on May 25.

On Friday, at least 250 casual workers of Air India moved the Bombay High Court seeking directions to the government-run airline to provide them work. The workers argued that the coronavirus-induced lockdown has rendered them unemployed and deprived them of wages. Justices RD Dhanuka and VG Bisht issued a notice and directed the national carrier to respond within two weeks