Tuesday, October 19, 2021

AFTER THE CELEBRATIONS THE REALITY

by Bikram Vohra

Every day Air India lost Rs 25 crores. The staff had become disoriented, the unions had flaccid muscles and there was a general ennui that enveloped the Maharajah. Time to let go.

That time has come and the torch has been passed back to the original owners who in 1930 used the Tata branding to take to the air.

The repeat performance is now on stage. The Tata name and reputation will play a major role in the comeback because at present this generation sees Air India as uncool. In the words of the young tribe just not hip. Air India is seen as a stodgy, full,dreary aunt wearing sensible shoes. There is no glamour, no excitement, no innovation. As a result the pick-up is slow.

So how do the Tatas cover that ground without digging themselves into a deeper financial hole? Here is where their image and their corporate profile comes into play. People believe in their credibility as the corporation with class and that element has to be exploited to the full so that the curiosity factor is channeled into passenger uplift.

This will require a total makeover including a facelift of the sagging image as it exists now. And this will have to be done right across the board from arrival at check in to departure to disembarkation. What is needed is a bright and sprightly 21st century look and feel. The optics are important and even though there may be a temptation to underplay them at this moment everything is based on the assessment media and the potential flyer will make between then and now.

There was a time Air India was, in the seventies, the trendsetter for the world.

Recall the pride in the maharajah and the brilliance of the Bobby Kooka ad campaigns that reflected India’s finest ambassador. The airline taught the world what flying was all about and how the best option for the first class traveller was the Maharajah Lounge on the 747. That imaging has to be replicated and faith reposed.

It is still widely believed that on time performance is impossible in Air India. Which is why we hear top executives, Indian sports teams, delegations moaning at the idea of flying Air India. This should be the most primary challenge and taken seriously. The credibility factor is predicated to this aspect.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Despite all this crap thrown at the Maharajah these past twenty years his staff soldier on. Here are five factors you need not believe but are true.

Air India crew are still the warmest and friendliest people in modern aviation, often victims of Airport ineptitude for which they have to answer uncharitably. If there is no wheel chair, it is not their purview but blame the airline.

Air India flight deck crew are the finest pilots and that is why we have a good safety record. By that token when we had half dead planes Engineering kept them flying and that is a tribute to their expertise.

For a nation fascinated by food, Air India inflight catering is way ahead of the rubber chicken but we love to complain because we can. And silently eat rubbish on other carriers.

Air India passengers are demanding, often insufferable because they all know someone and the airline is often co-opted to conduct non-revenue making exercises. This has to be now charged and chauvinism cannot be a factor.

Pressure from government and bureaucracy to exploit Air India is historical and it will not be easy to kill the intrusions which have been taken for granted.

With alliances and code sharing blurring the nationalistic lines, the passenger is no longer called upon to see his carrier as an object of unremitting pride. The guilt has gone. That old mantra of being the nation’s ambassador in the skies is so much nonsense and plays no part in a passenger decision. Today’s dictate is based on options, comforts, rewards, convenient connections and costs. And although Air India still comes to the international party it is more like a country cousin at a rich man’s wedding…awkward, bumbling and shabby.

With this privatisation, maybe the Maharajah will again walk tall and end the hypocrisy that has stained the robes of this carrier for far too long. In his letter to the staff on Oct 8 Ratan Tata has succinctly underscored how tough it is going to be now that the airline has come back home. Not only is there the need to consolidate the various bits and pieces between Air India, Express and Vistara and create a cohesive unit with a singular staff signature but also look at the frightening bottom line. The airline reported losses of ₹7,982.83 crore (provisional figure) in 2019-20, ₹8,556.35 crore in 2018-19, and ₹5,348.18 crore in 2017-18. Three attempts to sell the carrier finally letting it go for Rs 18000 crores and a leftover burden of Rs 23000 crores.

Its biggest asset is the 6200 slots on which it has a lien around the world’s airports. Slots are expensive and we all know a ‘slot’ is simply the permission of the airport operator for an airline to land a plane and then take off. This gives not just the right to land the aircraft, but also to use all necessary airport services and infrastructure and is directly connected to on time performance so it is not lost. This nexus is vital at level 1 and level 2 airports and lost slots cost.

These are the best bargaining chips and one is pretty confident they will be used effectively. But in a Covid hit industry the comeback is not going to be easy.

We have seen seven airlines go broke in India. Jet has still not found its way back and while it may be heartening to welcome a new airline in Akasa that is still an enigma. In a world where premium travel has been bruised and low cost no frill options have gained precedence as we see with Indigo there will have to be some very canny route planning and a reorganisation of the fleet.

For the milk and honey routes on the Gulf it might be worth considering more frequency and smaller aircraft. It is a thought. Too soon to call how things will go, one can only wish Tatas the best of flights with very little turbulence and strong tailwinds.

The first step is to ensure some balance to the government stopping the Rs 20 crore daily feed to keep the airline afloat. What are the eggs to be broken to make this omelete is to be seen.

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AFTER THE CELEBRATIONS THE REALITY

Every day Air India lost Rs 25 crores. The staff had become disoriented, the unions had flaccid muscles and there was a general ennui...
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