India’s civil aviation minister has warned that state-owned Air India may hire new pilots if the strike by existing pilots does not end soon.

Ajit Singh, who finally agreed to meet with a group of five striking pilots more than two weeks after the work stoppage began, also warned them that due to the losses the airline is incurring as a result of cancelled flights, it would be impossible for the pilots to receive back wages.

We can think of hiring new pilots, he told the pilots.

However, Singh assured the pilots that the company would take no punitive actions against them if they agreed to return to work and that their grievances would be considered.

We reiterated the stand of the government that it is an illegal strike. It has caused untold miseries to passengers. Air India has lost much and therefore they [pilots] should come back to work immediately, he told reporters after the parley.

We won't be vindictive. We understand their problems also. … They [pilots] are also worried, we also realize that we want them back. But it is for them to decide.

The meeting with officials from the Indian Pilots' Guild (IPG) lasted 90 minutes.

Among other grievances, the IPG has complained that Air India pilots have not received promotions and pay increases, as had been promised earlier by the company. The union is also upset that pilots from the domestic airlines, Indian Airlines, were chosen to train on the new fleet of Boeing Dreamliner 787 jets instead of their own pilots.

The company has already fired 101 Air India pilots – the union is demanding that they be reinstated.

India’s senior courts have sided against the pilots, with the Delhi High Court declaring the strike action “illegal.”

In a ruling, the Mumbai High Court stated: You (IPG) may have problems but first comply with the Delhi High Court order. Then you can go sort out your issues. You cannot harass the general public like this.”

The court became involved in connection with Air India’s attempts to de-recognize the union.

Meanwhile, Air India, which claims it has incurred losses of almost 3 billion rupees ($59 million) because of the strike, said its contingency plan will remain in effect through the end of June.

Under this contingency, the carrier will operate 38 international flights per day, down from the normal figure of 45.

But even if the pilots return to work, Air India faces an uphill battle with respect to its finances and future. The airline, which merged with domestic Indian Airlines in 2007, is racking up huge debt levels and has suffered from rising fuel prices.

In April, the government agreed to inject 300 billion rupees ($5.9 billion) into the carrier by the year 2020.