New Delhi: Air traffic across the country remained largely unaffected on Wednesday despite a nationwide protest by about 20,000 airport employees opposed to the closure of the existing airports in Bangalore and Hyderabad.

But some flights were hit due to the "non-cooperation movement" - the protestors refuse to call it a strike - in the national capital. There were warnings of disruptions elsewhere too.

About 500 Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel trained in airfield safety, fire fighting and aircraft marshalling were deployed at 21 major civilian airports to ensure smooth take-offs and landings, officials said.

A few flights from the capital's Indira Gandhi International Airport were delayed but operations were not badly affected by the indefinite protest by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) employees which got underway at midnight on Tuesday after talks with the government fell through.

Officials here though admitted that if the 1,700 employees stayed away much longer, baggage handling, sanitation and other ground activities would take a hit.

Shutting out legal action

Having ignored the Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA) the government has invoked, the employees are refraining from calling their protest a strike to escape any legal action that may be brought against them.

The de facto strike is to oppose the closure of the existing airports in Hyderabad and Bangalore, where new airports are set to open shortly.

In Mumbai, the country's commercial capital, about 2,500 AAI employees joined the strike, said AAI Employees Union leader Dilip Gujjar. But operations at the airport, which has been privatised, were almost normal.

Officials said that, the strike notwithstanding, all domestic and international flights had followed schedule.

"We have resources to handle the strike for at least a week," said the spokesperson for Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL). "Housekeeping will be outsourced and, for emergency services, we have a reserve team."

M.K. Ghoshal, a union leader, said the protest would go ahead as talks with the civil aviation ministry had failed on Tuesday.

Officials at the Pune Lohegaon Airport also insisted they were operating like "any other day".

"All the systems are in place," said Deepak Shastri, director of Airport Authority of Pune.

At Hyderabad, one of the two focal points of the dispute, union leaders claimed that all 270 employees at the existing Begumpet airport had struck work.

But officials claimed that alternate arrangements were in place to ensure normal flight movement.

The airport at Begumpet, in the heart of the city, caters to 250 flights daily but will be closed once the new international airport at Shamshabad, 35 km away, becomes operational on Sunday. The employees are boycotting their ground handling and emergency duties to demand that the central government pull out of an agreement with the GMR-led consortium, which stipulates that the existing airport will be shut once the new one is operational.

"Our fight is not just for jobs. It is for the airport, which is making a profit of 2.5 billion rupees each year (Dh226.9 million). Why should it not continue?" asked V.S. Gupta, a union leader.

No disruptions were reported from Bangalore and flights took off and landed on schedule, an airport official said.

"The strike would not affect flights here as the air traffic control is manned by the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) staff and the ground support services are handled by various airlines," said AAI general manager B.R. Sena.

In Chennai, airport director Dinesh Kumar said both domestic and international terminals were functioning normally.

In Kerala, the three international airports in Thiruvananthapuram, Cochin and Kozhikode operated smoothly.

The story at the Sardar Vallabhbhai International Airport in Ahmedabad was not much different.