India's struggling Kingfisher Airlines cancelled more than three dozen flights on Saturday when frustrated pilots and other employees walked off the job to protest about long-overdue pay.
The strike brought stiff words from Kingfisher owner Vijay Mallya who told workers "damaging the future of Kingfisher in the public eyes is not going to produce cash" to pay wages and keep the airline aloft.
The walkout, the third in under two weeks, comes after the airline -- which owes vast sums to lenders, suppliers and staff -- won more time from lenders this month to come up with a recovery plan to avert bankruptcy.
Mallya, known as the "King of Good Times" for his opulent lifestyle, urged the strikers to show "good sense" as passengers increasingly avoid the airline due to schedule disruptions.
The walkout made efforts to recapitalise the airline "more difficult by causing concern and apprehension among potential investors," said the tycoon, who also heads the profitable United Breweries (UB) Group.
"If some of you think cancelling flights, speaking to media, or disgracing our company will produce cash and salaries, you are wrong," he said.
Forty domestic flights were cancelled on Saturday, airline vice-president Prakash Mirpuri told AFP, but he declined to disclose the number of workers off the job.
The employees stayed home "due to salary payments not being credited to the bank accounts of all employees", Mirpuri said.
"We're doing everything we can to get the situation back to normal," he said, adding 75 percent of employees got their back salaries by Friday and the rest would have them by Monday. The wages have been owing since February.
Kingfisher, which is carrying debt of $1.4 billion, is flying about 15 aircraft instead of an earlier 64 planes as it battles to contain costs.
It has halted international operations and has the smallest market share among Indian airlines at 5.4 percent after being the second-largest carrier.
In May, the airline reported quarterly losses tripled to 11.52 billion rupees ($210 million) from a year earlier.
Mallya has been lobbying hard to push the government to allow foreign carriers to buy stakes in domestic airlines.
Foreign direct investment in aviation is seen as a potential lifeline to airlines such as Kingfisher, named after Mallya's flagship beer label, that analysts estimate needs up to $600 million to survive.
Almost every carrier is posting losses even as the number of passengers grows 20 percent annually with the sector hit by high fuel costs, fierce competition and shabby airport infrastructure.
The problems of Kingfisher are reckoned to be the worst of the private carriers, partly due to overly rapid expansion, while the government is resuscitating debt-laden state-run Air India with a $5.8 billion bailout.
"I am doing my best," Mallya, whose other group companies sell about half of all the liquor and beer drunk in India, told employees. "I personally have devoted more time to our airline than to any other UB Group company."
Source: AFP Global Edition