MUMBAI (Reuters) - Bhoja Poojari has handled baggage for India’s Jet Airways Ltd since it began flying nearly 26 years ago. Now, like many other Jet employees, he fears for the future as the debt-laden airline descends into crisis.
“If this continues, I do not know what to do,” said the 53-year-old father of two, who has not been paid in nearly two months and may be forced to sell his house.
“I feel like my hands are tied and I can’t sleep at night,” Poojari told Reuters. “I haven’t told my children anything. They are very young, but they know something is wrong.”
Thousands of employees have been stung by the rapid unravelling of Jet Airways, which, saddled with more than $1.2 billion (£922.5 million) in bank debt, grounded all its planes on Wednesday after lenders rejected a plea for emergency funds.
The shutdown has deepened the crisis as dues to lessors, staff and suppliers pile up and lenders scramble to find a buyer for what was once India’s largest private airline.
Jet Airways CEO Vinay Dube told employees on Wednesday that the sale would take time and could throw up more challenges, but he was confident the airline would fly again.
Failure would threaten more than 16,000 staff jobs and thousands more tied to the airline, which at its peak operated over 120 planes and more than 600 daily flights.
More than a dozen employees told Reuters they had gone two to four months without pay. Many grapple with unpaid bills, overdue home loans, school and tuition fees.
“We have stopped going out for movies, to restaurants or any other form of entertainment,” said a Jet engineer, who is self-tutoring his children after cancelling private tuitions.
He is listed as a defaulter in his community for failing to meet his building maintenance fee payments. “It’s a huge stigma for my family,” he said, declining to be named.
Hundreds of angry employees have protested in New Delhi and Mumbai, accusing management of leaving staff in the dark about the airline’s worsening crisis.
“Management never gives us a clear picture,” airline union leader Chaitanya Mainkar shouted during a protest at Mumbai’s international airport on Friday where employees chanted slogans and waved posters that read “Save Jet Airways, Save Our Family.”
Jet pilots appealed for intervention from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is facing wider criticism over the scarcity of jobs as he campaigns for re-election in polls now underway.
Last month, Modi asked state-run banks to rescue Jet Airways without pushing it into bankruptcy, averting thousands of job losses. But the airline never received the agreed stop-gap loan of about $217 million.
“At least now we know the talks about caring for employment, creating jobs is all an eyewash,” Captain Asim Valiani, vice president of the National Aviator’s Guild representing Jet pilots, told Reuters after the shutdown.
“I’ve been with Jet for 23 years and am shattered today. I don’t know what I will tell our pilots,” he said, adding the guild would take the airline to court to seek unpaid wages.
Jet Airways has lost key employees as the crisis unfolded.
About 400 pilots have moved to other airlines, leaving Jet with about 1,300 pilots, said a senior Jet pilot. About 40 engineers have also left, a senior engineer said.
Some veteran employees remain loyal to the airline and hope it can be restored to its former glory.
“I have worked here from the beginning - first day, first show,” said Anil Sahu, a 50-year-old baggage handler with 25 years of service.
“Even after all of this, we have trust in Jet. It’s a tsunami that has come, but we hope everything will return to normal,” he said.
Other senior employees like Poojari say they will struggle to find work if the airline fails.
“If I had quit earlier there was still a chance of moving on, but after 26 years and having crossed 50 (years of age), where will I find a job?”
Reporting by Abhirup Roy and Tanvi Mehta; Editing by Euan Rocha and Darren Schuettler