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India's Kingfisher fleet grounded for another week

October 05, 2012

Employees of Kingfisher Airlines participate in a candle light vigil after the wife of an employee committed suicide citing severe financial distress caused by non-payment of salary for several months, in New Delhi, India, Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. India's Kingfisher Airlines has extended its shut-down and won't fly any planes for another week unless it can convince pilots and engineers who haven't been paid for months to return to work. -AP Photo

MUMBAI: India's cash-strapped Kingfisher Airlines will remain grounded for at least another week after employees refused to go back to work without payment of salaries owing for seven months, the company said.

All Kingfisher flights have been cancelled since Monday as the airline tries to persuade employees to return to work, but talks to resolve the crisis ended without making any headway on Thursday.

On Friday, nearly 200 striking pilots, engineers and other workers staged a march in Mumbai in protest after the wife of a Kingfisher technician killed herself in the Indian capital.

Police said the woman had left a note blaming her death on financial stress caused by her husband's lack of wages.

“We have taken out this march to condole the untimely death our colleague's wife,” said Vikrant Patkar, a pilot, who represents the striking workers.

The marchers carried posters lampooning the airline and its owner, billionaire-liquor baron Vijay Mallya, as they marched in uniform from the city's domestic airport to the airline's city office, Kingfisher House.

“Stop sucking our blood,” read one of the banners while another poster said: “Asking for salaries after seven months is not illegal.”

Kingfisher spokesman Prakash Mirpuri expressed “regret” the staff refused to return to work, “thereby continuing to cripple and paralyse the working of the entire airline”.

The airline extended what it called a “partial lock-out” to October 12.

Kingfisher's shares fell by 4.68 per cent to 13.25 rupees, its fifth straight trading day of declines.

The carrier, which has a debt of nearly $1.3 billion, is desperately scouting for a foreign airline to pump in fresh capital to keep it flying.

The airline, which owes millions of dollars in taxes as well as money to suppliers, lenders and staff, has been forced to drastically cut down its operations in the past year, shutting down international flights completely.

The company was India's second-largest airline until a year ago but now has a market share of just 3.2 per cent, the smallest of the country's carriers.

Government-controlled State Bank of India, which heads a consortium of mainly state-run banks that has extended loans to Kingfisher, ruled out providing further funds to the carrier.

“There are no assets to hypothecate,” bank chairman Pratip Chaudhuri told reporters. “So there is no room for more debt.”

At the same time, Chaudhuri said bankers “are still giving time to Mr Mallya to get an investor because if we pull the plug, it (the situation) would be irretrievable,” Chaudhuri said.

A new report by the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, a leading aviation consultancy, has said Kingfisher's debts now totalled $2.49 billion including bank debts of $1.1 billion, and it had accumulated losses of $1.9 billion.