The coronavirus pandemic has had its first direct impact on employment in India. Hundreds of ground handling agents (GHAs) providing support services to international airlines have been asked to go on ‘temporary’ leave as over 75 per cent of the flights to and from India have been suspended over the past few days.
There is now an imminent threat of unemployment for nearly 35,000 GHAs associated with various international airlines, till regular flight operations begin again. The ground handling (GH) industry totally employs over 70,000 people, with over half of them working for international airlines.
On March 3, India suspended visas granted to the nationals of Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan. On Monday, the list was extended to include those from the EU and the UK. This has shut the doors to over 90 per cent of international flights, said an industry source.
R Promod, General Manager – India, NAS Ground Handling, said: “Temporary layoffs can be foreseen. No airline, GHA or travel agent will be able to survive without drastic cost cuts. The whole team can be in trouble as their salaries won’t come if there are no flights.”
Redeploying the GHAs is unlikely as, when an international airline ceases to operate in India, it is a countrywide move and not to any specific airport, he told BusinessLine.
Echoing a similar view, Murali Ramachandran, CEO – India, Celebi Aviation Holding Inc, said: “The situation is quite concerning. The aviation industry is at the forefront of this crisis and is probably the most impacted.” Celebi operates at India’s top seven airports, employing around 8,000 people.
“Post the visa directives, airlines have started cancelling flights. This will lead us to a force majeure situation. Leave without pay is an alternative. Countries abroad are providing support to avoid layoffs. The Indian government should provide financial support for salaries to avoid layoffs,” he added.
B Govindarajan, Chief Operating Officer of Chennai-based Tirwin Management Services Pvt Ltd, which provides aviation training, said GH operators offer dedicated personnel to airlines, not realising their workforce may be grossly underutilised when the flight frequency comes down. GH companies that have very high attrition rates are often unable to meet agreed upon service levels, and face penalty deductions, he said.
“GH companies have not factored in any of the eventualities either in their costs or in their operations framework and face serious problems when things go wrong. Today, they have asked employees sitting idle to go on leave,” he said, adding that the alternative is to retrench them, leading to large-scale unemployment.
The GHAs should consider the current challenge as an opportunity to redraw their strategies, wherein their personnel are deployed across more than one airline, thus pushing up their productivity, Govindarajan said. Similarly, they should factor in such eventualities in their pricing mechanism, he added.
Agreeing with Govindarajan, A Yoga Narasimhan, COO, Air India SATS Airport Services Pvt Ltd, said: “We will also utilise this period to look at opportunities to upscale our staff where appropriate. It will be our continuous endeavour to keep our staff engaged as we continue to navigate through this situation.”