Passenger aboard Vistara narrowbody.

Vistara flags multiple factors for disruptions including pilot rosters


As the merger between Air India and Vistara continues to move forward, Tata Group appears to have hit a pocket of turbulence, with Vistara pilots pushing back against the group’s contracts, specifically relating to the number of hours guaranteed and flight duty time limits. This discontent has reportedly led some pilots to engage in sickouts and defections. Vistara has in turn grappled with flight disruptions, as compounded by other factors.

Vistara CEO Vinod Kannan says the carrier has scaled back operations by 25-30 flights per day, and admits that “stretched” pilot rosters have played a role in recent delays and cancellations, but he also cites air traffic control delays, bird strikes and maintenance activities as contributing factors.

“It has been a challenging start to the new financial year,” Kannan admits in an internal message to employees provided to Runway Girl Network by Vistara’s media relations department.

“As you are no doubt aware, we faced significant operational disruption from 31 March to 2 April. The anxiety and frustration felt by our customers was matched in even measure to the pain that all of us felt in seeing our much-loved brand drawing negative commentary from various quarters. There has been some misrepresentation pertaining to this on external forums. I assure you that the worst is behind us, and we have already stabilised our operations, with our on-time performance (OTP) increasing to 89% on 9 April 2024 (second highest among all Indian airlines).”

He continues:

“[T]here were a multitude of reasons behind this, including ATC delays, bird hits, and maintenance activities early last month — all of which had a cascading effect on a highly optimised network. We were stretched in our pilot rosters and there was not enough resilience to withstand injects that we would otherwise have weathered. We could and should have planned better, and this has been a learning experience for us which we will review thoroughly.

But what is the source of pilot discontent at Vistara?

About a year ago, Air India was negotiating a new package with its pilots, some of whom were dissatisfied with the terms offered. During this period of negotiation, Indian low-cost carrier Go First suspended its operations, inundating the market with a supply of trained Airbus A320 family captains, first officers and cabin crew. Shortly thereafter, Air India’s two pilots unions accepted new contract terms, which reportedly guarantee pay for 40 hours a month compared to a pre-merger high of 70 hours. Fast forward to today and it’s understood that Vistara’s pilots are being offered the same terms as part of their transition to being Air India employees.

A letter dated 4 April to Tata Group from both the Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association and the Indian Pilots’ Guild, which are providing support to Vistara pilots — and shared on X by aviation consultant Sanjay Lazar — states: “The pilots of Vistara have been steadfast in their advocacy for fixed 70 hours compensation, improved working conditions, and stable roster. After thorough assessment and consultation, we firmly believe that their demands are not only reasonable but also reflective of broader challenges prevalent within Tata Group airlines.”

Under the specter of these challenges, Indian aviation regulator DGCA, under pressure from the Delhi High Court, has asked airlines for a date by which they will implement new Flight Duty Time Limits (January 2024 revision PDF). These were meant to be valid from June 2024 but have been pushed back at the request of Indian airlines as they scramble to hire more pilots for their ambitious growth plans. Among other clauses, the new rules mandate extending pilots’ weekly rest time to 48 hours and a maximum of two landings for any operations encroaching night duty.

These constraints and contract negotiations highlight the challenges facing Tata Group. The company acquired Air India two years ago and decided to merge it with Vistara, which also counts Singapore Airlines (SIA) as part-owner. SIA will retain up to 25.1% of the future merged airline.

For his part, Vistara’s Kannan is thankful to the Vistara pilots and other crew members who have stepped up to help normalize operations at the airline. “First and foremost, I would like to express my gratitude to our pilots for cooperating and stepping up to support operations,” he says.

“My sincere thanks to the frontline staff, and all customer-facing teams as well, who were faced with a daunting and escalating situation, which they managed with utmost professionalism. Dealing with disappointed customers is never easy but amidst all the chaos, we have received feedback on how some of you went beyond the call of duty to assist our customers to the extent possible. Lastly, a big thank you to all the support functions working behind the scenes to nurse us back to normalcy. Your commitment makes all the difference!”

Let me reiterate that we are working with the relevant teams to introduce more resilience to our operations. We have scaled back our operations by around 25-30 flights per day, i.e, roughly 10% of the capacity we were operating. These cancellations are mostly on our domestic network and much ahead of time to minimise inconvenience to customers.

Additionally, we are working on the plans for May 24 and beyond. On the customer front, we have reached out to each customer impacted by cancellations and delays over the affected period. We have provided the necessary compensation as per the regulatory mandate, and have also offered additional service recovery vouchers for passengers whose flights were significantly delayed.

He urges employees “not lose sight of all the positives of the past few weeks” including the delivery of Vistara’s 70th aircraft — its seventh Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner — which marks the completion of its 787 orderbook. “We inaugurated operations on the BOM-CDG route: our sixth non-stop long-haul route between India and Europe. We also deployed the state-of-the-art Dreamliner on the DEL-DPS route, offering top-notch amenities and exceptional service to customers, while being the only airline to operate direct flights between the two cities.”

Friction in salary negotiations is a common theme across the global aviation industry. But the next few weeks are vital. Air India’s planned growth trajectory is significant, with the airline having placed orders for nearly 500 twinjets last year. Management will certainly need to put its best foot forward in negotiations with its most important resource, its people. As to whether Air India sees a speedy resolution to the pilot integration issues, the airline did not provide comment to RGN.

Additional reporting by Mary Kirby

Related Articles:

Featured image credited to Neelam Mathews