Any visitor to Siroya Centre, the headquarters of the now grounded Jet Airways in Mumbai, comes across a fund box seeking donations. Every day for the last two months, the money collected in this box is distributed amongst the airline’s skeletal staff — human resource officials, cleaners and chaiwallahs — who continue to keep the office functional, mostly to do paperwork for those quitting, until, they say, the shutters finally come down.
On April 17, Jet Airways flight 9W 2502 flew from Amritsar to Mumbai, marking the 1993-born airline’s final flight. Stunned at this rude jolt to their lives and careers, the airline’s staff — pilots, ground crew, cabin crew and many others — have been knocking on every door possible in the hope that the airline will be revived.
Shailesh Kumar Singh, however, had lost all hope. On the afternoon of April 26, a week after Jet Airways announced closure of its domestic and international operations, Singh, 53, a senior technician with Jet for 15 years, jumped to his death from the terrace of his house in Nallasopara, Mumbai.
Singh suffered from stomach cancer for three years before he ended his life. Both Singh and his younger son Saurabh, who worked with Jet as a flight operations assistant, hadn’t got their salary since March and the mounting hospital bills were adding to the tension at home. Singh’s wife Sunita says he became depressed after Jet’s closure.
“It has been two months, neither the airlines nor the government has come forward to support us,” says Singh’s elder son Raghvendra from UP, to where the family has moved since Singh’s death. Raghvendra had quit his job with a private company to attend to his father when he was unwell.
“I have stopped going to record attendance,” says Saurabh. “What purpose will it serve?”
Ahead of the general elections that began in April, discussions to revive Jet Airways had gathered steam with names of several investors, including the Tata Group, various private equity investors, the National Infrastructure Investment Fund, and others, doing the rounds. All that while, the airline’s bankers were looking for an investor to save the company. India’s oldest private carrier was bleeding without the funding that was promised by the lenders as part of the resolution plan.
On April 17, Jet Airways ceased all operations and nearly a month after that, the State Bank of India said it had received two bids from potential investors to pick stake in the airline. However, when the bids were opened, it was learnt that Jet’s biggest investor Etihad Airways had written a note suggesting conditional investment in the company. In May, after announcing the results of State Bank of India, its chairman Rajnish Kumar said in a press conference that Jet Airways was only a small part of the loan books and that disproportionate efforts were made to keep the airline flying. As of date, the bankers continue to make efforts to revive the airline, which has not been able to repay loans amounting to over Rs 7,000 crore to these lenders.
A case is underway at the Mumbai Regional Labour Commission where issues of pending salary, gratuity fund and provident fund are under discussion. The labour commissioner has directed Jet Airways to adhere to the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972, and file a compliance report in June. The next hearing in the case is on June 12.
“The salaries remain pending since March. Apart from that, employees are worried if they will be able to withdraw their provident fund that has accumulated over the years. The labour commission will hopefully address these issues, but where is the money with Jet to pay employees?” said an official from the All India Jet Airways Officers and Staff Association.
Until April end, the airlines had over 14,500 employees — 1,500 pilots, 3,000 cabin crew members, and 7,000 ground operations and technical staff. Salaries totalling Rs 242 crore remain pending. At least 600-700 pilots (captains and first officers) and a similar number of cabin crew have joined domestic airlines including SpiceJet, Air India, IndiGo and Vistara.
Some, however, have been holding out. Nidhi Chaphekar, the Jet in-flight manager who was injured in the 2016 bomb blasts at Zaventem airport in Brussels, is now at the forefront of multiple delegations meeting politicians. With gloves on to guard her hands, still healing from the wounds after the blast, from infection, Chaphekar is part of almost every protest march, sharing petitions, and generating discussions on possible solutions for the Jet crisis.
“Many in Jet will agree the company stood by us during our hardships. It is perhaps our time to patiently wait for the company to bounce back,” she says.
In 2016, the terror-stricken face of Chapekar, in her bright yellow uniform, with blood streaking down her nose and burns on her hands, had gone viral following the bomb blasts. In the months after, as she lay bed-ridden, Jet Airways, Chapekar says, “extended full support”.
“We recently met the Finance Minister and the Civil Aviation Minister. Their response has kept us all hopeful that the government may help,” she says.
Gangadas Kuri, 47, Cargo loader
Everyday, Gangadas Kuri wears his blue uniform, leaves home at 6.30 am and waits for his children to leave for their school and college before returning home to spend the day idle.
They know Jet Airways has shut its operations, but every time they ask him, he rubbishes the news. “I tell them it is all fake news on TV, that the airlines is in loss but still operating,” says Kuri.
In 1995, then a tailor, Kuri cracked an interview for cargo loader with Jet. Kuri signed a contract with the then two-year-old airline to work in the loading and unloading department, handling passenger luggage and cargo in flights. His monthly salary then was Rs 2,000, it is Rs 25,000 now — or was until March, when he got his salary last.
Kuri did not know Jet had suspended its operations until April 17, when he handled cargo for 9W 2502, Jet’s last flight before it was grounded. When he heard “the rumour”, he went to confirm with his manager, who was himself planning to resign. By then, Kuri’s salary had been delayed by 24 days, but he reasoned with himself: “Jet always pays us, there is a delay just this one time. It will come soon.”
That wait hasn’t ended for him, his wife and their two children who live in a flat in Mumbai’s western suburbs of Sakinaka for a monthly rent of Rs 10,000.
Kuri’s wife Swaroopa recalls pestering him repeatedly for ration money. “Then he told me that he had not got the month’s salary,” she says. Within weeks, Swaroopa says their lifestyle changed. “Dal chawal kha ke din nikal rahe hai (We are only eating dal and rice),” she says.
On May 10, an e-mail from his manager stated that medical insurance for the family would be stopped immediately. Swaroopa requires surgery to treat her piles. The cost is Rs 35,000 and she is now trying Ayurveda.
Younger son Ishwar starts Class 12 in June and his admission fee is Rs 20,000, coaching fee is an additional Rs 30,000. Elder daughter Jahnvi starts her third year of Bachelor’s in Mass Media Studies. “We don’t know how we will pay their tuition or transport fee,” says Swaroopa.
Kuri has tried looking for jobs. “Age is not on my side,” he says. The only job available is that of security guard with a monthly pay of Rs 10,000 and over 12 hours of work.
The couple refuses to meet The Sunday Express at their home, fearing their children will overhear them. So Kuri and Swaroopa get newspapers, spread them in their building compound and squat by a closed shop, and cry.
They point to a building nearby. “We were close to purchasing a one-room flat here last year. It would have cost Rs 35 lakh. I was going to apply for home loan, but then this happened,” says Kuri, making a downward swooping motion with his hand indicating a plane making a rapid descent.
It is summer vacation. With pocket money squeezed, the children have stopped going out to meet friends, using their mother’s illness as an excuse. “A few days ago, Janhvi did not attend a friend’s birthday party. I felt like crying,” says Swaroopa.
The children love pizza and burgers, but have not gone out to eat since their holidays began. Every year in May, the family would first go shopping and then head towards their native village near Hyderabad. This year, they was no money for the train ticket.
Kiru is the eldest of four brothers, and worries who to turn to for financial aid. “I told our landlord that I’ll pay rent after three months. But for how long will he wait?”
“I gave 25 years to this airline. This was not how I thought they would leave us,” he says, worried if he can withdraw the provident fund money.
Meesha Bakshi, 21, ground staff
The only silver lining, Meesha Bakshi laughs, is that she doesn’t need to wear make-up every day. “I used to spend Rs 5,000 a month on make-up,” says Meesha Bakshi, 21, as she sips her coffee in a quiet cafe in Andheri East, not far from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport where she worked as a ground staff for Jet.
She had learnt the art of applying make-up, doing exactly as the airlines mandated — either a “full nude make-up, or a pinkish tone look, or bright red make-up”.
In the 17 months that Meesha spent working at Jet’s counters — doing ground operations, handling check-ins, boarding passengers, and reservations — every day brought a new thrill. “We had only 40 minutes of flight turnaround time, during which we had to get the plane cleaned as soon as it landed, prepare for the next flight, and get passengers to board. Even a minute’s delay had to be accounted for,” says Meesha, her eyes sparkling with the memory of those days.
Jet Airways maintained a strict dress code. “It was common for our stockings to tear. There was always an extra pair in my handbag,” she says. Even a hair out of place invited an instruction to visit the washroom and redo the hairstyle. “We learnt discipline,” she says.
For three years, as she pursued her B.Com from Thakur College, Mumbai, Meesha tried to bag an air hostess’s job with Jet, appearing for at least 25 interviews and failing each time, despite having worked out aggressively and lost 22 kg.
After her graduation in 2017, Meesha finally applied for the post of ground staff, and cleared the interview. Following a month-long training, she was posted at the international airport. She had chalked out a road map — work well, apply again and become a member of the cabin crew. That dream proved short-lived. Her long-term plan of opening a restaurant with her sister seems farther away.
She remembers how excited her businessman father, homemaker mother and sister, a chef, had been when she got her appointment letter from Jet. Her salary was Rs 20,000. Meesha was put in group ‘Charlie’ (the other groups were called Alpha and Bravo), where she befriended 14 other ground staff. “Everyone called our group ‘chaos’. We had so much fun,” she recollects.
Her first job, she says, taught her patience. In her early days with the airline, a passenger with excess luggage had thrown a fit, pulling out extra clothes from his suitcase and flinging them on her counter. She had returned home crying. Passengers missing their flights was common, and she dreaded handling them, especially the ones she knew “were out there shopping near the boarding gate while the final announcement was being made”.
In January, Meesha was asked to coordinate boarding gates. Days later, the manager called a meeting. “Several Jet flights were getting cancelled. The manager asked us to stay calm while handling passengers. It was getting common to see angry passengers at our counters,” she remembers.
In February, a couple flying to Bali for their honeymoon were told that the flight had been cancelled. Meesha dreaded their reaction. “I felt bad too, but what could we do? We had reached a point in March when even our salaries had stopped coming,” she says.
She recalls being on duty when Jet operated its last flight. “When we opened the plane door to receive the cabin crew, they all had small faces. The passengers wished us luck. Nobody knew if we would ever return to work at the airport,” Meesha says.
Geetanjali Parilkar, 50, Co-pilot
At 50, Geetanjali has taken to studying. Her life depends on it. “If I pass the ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence) test, I can apply as a pilot in foreign carriers,” she says at her home in Jogeshwari, Mumbai, nursing a fractured left foot.
Indian private airlines have an unsaid ageist rule — pilots beyond 45 are rarely recruited. Geetanjali, who turned 50 some months ago, has worked as a co-pilot with Jet Airways since 2000, flying the ATR turboprop first and then Boeing 737 and 777. It never bothered her that she didn’t graduate from co-pilot to captain, she says, adding that there was never any time to prepare and sit for the ATPL test that would have qualified her to become captain.
She had hoped to fly off into the sunset with Jet Airways, until May, when it finally hit her hard that the airline may not revive and she would be without an income. The crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time for Geetanjali. After going through a divorce in 2014, Geetanjali, who has her two young daughters, aged 19 and 13, to look after, has had to turn to her sister and Odisha-based parents for support.
Since 1993, when she began her career as a pilot, Geetanjali has seen multiple airlines fold up. In 1995, Raj Air, for whom she flew the Fokker 50 turboprop, grounded its passenger operations. “Its tail had a beautiful jungle print,” she recalls. She then joined Khemka Group’s NEPC airlines, which was founded in 1993, the same year as Jet Airways. In 1995, NEPC bought Damania Airways, but barely two years later, the airlines shut down. Geetanjali then used to fly the Fokker F-27. “I was amongst the last few pilots to leave NEPC,” she says. In 1998, she joined Gujarat Airways and underwent training in the US to fly the Beech 1900. Within years, the airlines too shut its operations. In September 2000, Geetanjali joined Jet Airways, becoming the first woman co-pilot to fly ATR for the airlines.
“Somehow I managed to get another job every time an airlines shut. The industry was so small,” she says. But Jet’s untimely end has been especially painful. “Until recently, Jet ruled the European skies,” she says, her eyes moist.
After her elder sister coaxed her to look for jobs, Geetanjali started studying for ATPL exams. Every day, she spends hours at a coaching class in Andheri West, in Mumbai’s suburbs, then travels to Bandra for physiotherapy sessions for her fractured leg. “Getting back on my feet is crucial. We need to give simulator tests every six months to keep the licence. Mine expires in July,” she says.
Flying was never her ambition, admits Geetanjali. Her father wanted her to become a chartered accountant but when she failed, he encouraged her to try flying. “Young women were taking up flying in the Eighties. The first time I sat in a cockpit, I felt a thrill, and knew I wanted to fly for the rest of my life,” she says.
She met her ex-husband, a pilot with Air India, while the two were with NEPC Airlines. When she joined Jet Airways, they had a five-month-old daughter. “I have sacrificed a lot for Jet. There were times when I had to leave my baby and fly for five days. But then, Jet supported me when I needed them,” she says. In other airlines, she remarks, inter-department relationships are formal. “In Jet,” she smiles, “if my family was flying, I just had to drop a text, and they would be looked after by the cabin crew.”
With her married life mostly turbulent, multiple airlines shutting down and two young daughters at home waiting for her, Geetanjali says Jet was the only pillar that remained steady.
“Jet is the ‘Make in India’ that the government keeps talking about,” she smiles. Almost instantly, the smile vanishes. “But the government says Jet is a private carrier, and SBI can’t lend money. Aren’t employees tax payers and Indian citizens? Then why can’t they help us?” She has broken her fixed deposits to run the house, and her family funds her daughter’s education and her home loan.
Pilots with Jet discuss how trouble started brewing in July 2018, when they were informed that salaries would be delayed. They would receive salary in installments of 25-50 per cent and then, gradually, salaries got delayed by two months. Salaries of November 2018 were cleared in January 2019. While some pilots began quitting in October last year, many stayed back. After all, Jet paid among the highest salaries in the airline industry. In 2016-17, the annual total expenditure of Jet Aiways per pilot was Rs 71.5 lakh, followed by Indigo at Rs 62.6 lakh.
“When Naresh Goyal (Jet founder) shifted from London to Dubai, there were rumours. But we did not make much of it,” Geetanjali remembers. She remembers Goyal as an affable person who would often walk into the cockpit to chat with pilots, or drop a smile whenever he came across someone from the staff. “Now his image has shattered. He could have saved us, but didn’t,” she says. Apart from joining protest rallies and candle marches, she knows of no other way to express her angst.
Geetanjali says her elder daughter wanted to become a pilot. “But I told her no. I told her she could do architecture, engineering… anything but commercial flying.”
Having flown 9,800 hours and at least six types of aircraft, she struggles with the idea of a future without Jet. “You know, Jet is like this old toy. It breaks and you apply glue to keep it together. It’s your favourite toy, and you can’t lose it. Jet is like that to me,” she says.
Pankaj and Hazel, 32, ground cargo operations
On the outskirts of Mumbai, in Nallasopara, Pankaj Thakur, 32, dreamt of a Royal Enfield bike, his wife Hazel of a larger flat. Both planned to have a child soon, it had been three years since their wedding. “All our plans are at a standstill, suddenly we don’t know what to do except wait,” says Hazel, 32.
It was 2008, when Hazel joined Jet Airways’s ground operations in the cargo section. A year later, Pankaj was appointed to the cargo department. Both started dating almost immediately. In 2016, they decided to marry. Hazel is a supervisor of ground cargo operations, Pankaj a senior cargo assistant.
In their one-bedroom flat in Nallasopara, an hour’s drive from their office in Mumbai, the drawing room has a double bed for Pankaj’s elderly parents. A glass showcase has two tiny plastic models of Jet aircraft. A washing machine, television and a tiny prayer space line one wall.
Devendra Thakur, 63, a retired Air India employee, sits by the edge of his bed. “I have faith in government jobs, I always tell him,” he says. Pankaj immediately counters him, “We expected the government to help, but SBI refused to lend interim funds for Jet to continue flight operations.”
Ever since Jet shut its operations on April 17, the mood in the flat has remained sullen. Pankaj’s mother Reeta remembers seeing the two return home early that day. Both were crying. “Kuch bol hi nahin rahe the dono (They didn’t say anything),” she says. But Reeta understood — she had been watching news channels though the two tried not to discuss the growing Jet crisis at home.
The immediate worry in Thakurs’ flat, then and now, is the monthly household expense of Rs 25,000. Pankaj and Hazel’s savings are dwindling — “like sand from our hands”. They have been making do with credit cards.
The two go to office every day, record their attendance, and sit with others and talk about latest developments. Hazel says, “Signing the muster is most painful.” They had saved up money for a new vehicle, for their parents’ treatment, but the bank accounts will soon run dry.
Pankaj has gone to multiple department stores for interviews for the post of store manager. “Everywhere they ask me about Jet’s downfall, not about my qualifications,” he says. The salary offered, much less than Jet’s, forces him to refuse offers.
But soon, he says, they may have to agree to lower packages. “We had reached senior levels, but at this point, any job we get will be of a lower package,” Hazel says, adding that those above 30 have been having a hard time finding alternative jobs.
For the last three months, the couple have been unable to pay the monthly installment of Rs 24,000 on a personal loan that they had taken. The family was covered under a corporate medical insurance policy, which lapsed when the flight operations shut.
“We were planning to have a baby when this announcement came…” Pankaj trails off. Hazel continues, “Everyone wants to grow in life. This house is really far from Mumbai. We thought we’ll buy a place closer to work.”
Hazel has decided to take a break. “It is not easy to see a first job end like this, a company crumble like this. I don’t feel like applying anywhere,” she says. Pankaj, meanwhile, has few more interviews lined up.