One passenger’s airline

Published Oct 13, 2012 10:00pm

IN the beginning, says the Bible, was the word. If you need evidence that we are now far closer to Judgment Day, with much of humanity destined alas for a spell in hell, note the manner in which we have corrupted the word in the service of subterfuge.

It would be wrong to condemn a whole industry for the sins of its pirates, but the public relations crowd has much to answer for in the continuing degradation of language. Their purpose is no longer to convey a fact or an opinion, but to mislead.

Perhaps it was a sign of naiveté that my jaw dropped upon reading a statement issued by Prakash Mirpuri, a spokesman of Kingfisher airlines, in the middle of the strike by pilots and engineers who, instead of being paid for their work, have been fed a stream of lies about when their salary cheques will arrive.

The text was from a dictionary published by Alice in Wonderland, where words are slaves of their employer. The exact paragraph needs to be repeated: “We regret that the illegal strike has still not been withdrawn and normalcy has not been restored in the company, thereby continuing to cripple and paralyse the working of the entire airline.”

It was deception delivered with pathos. Mirpuri deserves an immediate increment, even if there is no money for pilots.

Only in the rarefied clouds where Kingfisher management resides, is it absolutely legitimate to deny staff salaries for work done, and demand that they be punished for breaking the law if they protest. Some bright spark on the Kingfisher board must have thought jail to be a perfectly reasonable option; after all meals are free in jail, reducing the cost of living.

The salaries of big bosses never stop, incidentally; cheques in their name neither bounce nor get lost en route.

And what precisely is the new definition of normalcy in Kingfisher?

That an airline which set off to conquer the world has been driven towards bankruptcy by psychotic ownership? That every minute a staggering debt load becomes heavier? That some of this debt was obtained by rigging the value of company shares? That those who leased aircraft to the company are picking up their property from the terminal in a desperate bit to cut their losses? That Airports Authority of India will not let the airline fly until it clears Rs273 crores in dues, since cheques of the value of Rs107 crores have bounced, and owner Vijay Mallya has pleaded with the courts for exemption from personal appearance in the subsequent criminal case? That this sum represents only an infinitesimal level of its collective debt of around Rs8,500 crores?

And yet the spokesman has the temerity to suggest that it is pilots and engineers who are “continuing to cripple” the airline.

Were pilots taking boardroom decisions? Did pilots order berserk expansion and spending designed to feed an owner’s ego rather than a rational business plan?

Pilots were in their cockpit, not in the chairman’s cabin or the chief executive’s chair. Note the subtle suggestion inherent in the use of “continuing”: pilots are being blamed not only for the present strike but also for what has happened in the past. Just in case “cripple” did not pack sufficient punch, they threw in “paralyse” as well.

A cripple can still move; paralysis is immobility. Mirpuri should issue a follow-up statement: ‘How dare these pilots and engineers demand back pay! They should instead pawn their family jewels so that they can send appropriate donations to the Vijay Mallya Rehabilitation Fund (only personal cheques, please).’

Note also the spokesman’s charge that pilots and engineers have destroyed the “entire” airline, not just its wing or nose-tip or fuselage. Entire is a juicy, comprehensive word: we talk of an entire nation, stretching from east to west and lengthening from north to south. It would probably take an entire newspaper to convey the entirety of pain on the executive floor of Kingfisher airlines.

It is not employees who have virtually retired an entire airline; Kingfisher was barely able to patch together the minimum number of flights required by its licence when the strike began as a final attempt to glean something from a failed proposition. I have no idea who the passengers on these scratch flights were, but they should get gold medals for optimism and courage.

There is one set of pilots and engineers in the entire fleet that has no reason for complaint or rancour. They get paid on the dot.

They fly with a smile, if not a song in their hearts. They probably get lots of overtime, since punctuality is not a priority in their operations. They are the crew that ferries Vijay Mallya around the world in 80 days, or less if there is a Formula One party going on somewhere. Kingfisher has become one passenger’s airline.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.


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