Thursday, July 25, 2024

Air India: Touch Of Royalty For A Shabby Relative

By Bikram Vohra

Consulting Editor

Guess what is for dinner is not important. On-time performance is the key. The return of pride in the staff is also a vital priority.

What nearly 40 years ago was rudely taken away from the Tata’s by the then Prime Minister of India, Morarji Desai, was given back to the Tata group by Prime Minister Modi and Air India finally came home. There is now a deep belief that with its exceptional record of accomplishment, this corporation will miraculously give the Maharaja his crown back. With a sceptre in hand, the airline will soar into the stratosphere with resounding success like it once was the epitome of commercial aeronautical excellence and luxury travel.

Over the years, the Maharaja was rudely defrocked and this was the essence of the image he was humbled down to and made into a caricature. “It is primarily due to excessive security of service, non-competitive culture, absence of meritocracy and non-result oriented management practices. In short, the worst of bureaucratic attitudes and ‘airs’ started blowing in Air India, which was once the proud flagship carrier of India.”

Tata’s have bought into this INR 18000 crore image. Like accepting a shabby relative at a rich man’s wedding. Now starts the hard work.

It is not going to be easy to be a flagship again. No one has that magic wand which can just be waved around and things will fall into place. You are not Zubin Mehta with a baton making music. That sheet can only be written with sweat and tears. It is a sobering yet intriguing thought, that hours after the official signing of the deal with the government the first major story that came out on this acquisition was about the upgrade in the quality of the food that would be served in first class and business class. One would imagine that there are a lot more important issues than the level of the cuisine. To be brutally honest this is not going to cut much ice and should not even be a priority at this moment.

Similarly, while a friendly media in one’s corner is a very happy situation it must serve a purpose without being gratuitous. An article recently in a major Indian daily announced with immense pride that ever since Tata’s took over, Air India has become the favourite airline for 3.5 million Indians in the Gulf. That is simply not true and detracts from any concerted efforts being made by Tata’s to pull in the slack. Such clumsily orchestrated reports simply do not cut the mustard. More than meals and media deals at the very outset Air India’s new management has to address three major issues and correct them if the airline is to have any chance of retrieving its pristine glory.

It is also a bit worrying that the [now declined] appointment of former Turkish Airline chief Ilker Ayci had been mired in controversy. While it is true that the appointment of a foreign national requires Central government clearance, it is usually a technical factor, not a political blockage. By intimidating Ayci, we have not only bruised our image as a democracy, but we have also disallowed Tata’s from taking their first big step after taking over the carrier. Indeed, a company of this repute would have done due diligence for which they have been given no credit. Ayci’s working relationship with Erdogan should have no relevance on his ability to run the debt-ridden carrier. That was 30 years ago.

The whole idea was to make it a private airline and that is not being accomplished.

In the interim as the hunt starts again, what can Tata’s do to keep moving in the right direction?

On the top of that list would be a hard-core effort to improve on-time performance. Air India has had a very poor reputation in this regard and it does not matter who is at the helm if the ETA and ETD are up for grabs. Almost one in two flights have been delayed in the figures available for the past three years. In 2019 before Covid it was the last in terms of OTP where all domestic carriers were concerned. The Tata group is seized of this fact and has sensibly given it priority over the window dressing of food in first class, the crew uniforms and other coloured beads stuff like that.

Things have changed a great deal in civil aviation. For one, the mindset of nationalism has melted like ice cream in the sun. Chauvinism is no longer a serious poker card. Deals, comforts, loyalty rewards, routes, timings, all these supersede patriotism as they should seeing as how these are now private commercial entities having no lien on tugging at the heartstrings. Again, the glamour of cabin crew is no longer a coffee; tea or me subtly sexual come hither. Competence enhances charm but the kittenish concept has become passé. This is mass transit time, not a party at the Copa. Get me there safely and as promised.

Talking of crew, be it on ground, in the flight deck or the cabin there has been a systematic leaking of pride. The crew are tired, disenchanted, even disinterested. A government airline ensured that the sloppy, indifferent attitude to the work ethic brought very little accountability and over the years that dispirited approach became corrosive. The Maharaja’s courtiers had reneged. Air India has 133 staff per aircraft, pretty much the highest globally. The 2009 merger with Indian Airlines only bloated the figure since there were no layoffs and the promised synergy failed to take off. Even today, the unions are fractious and looking for slight.

That pride has to be brought back if the tangible sensation of change is to be registered in the passenger’s mind. Be it at check-in, in the plane, at disembarkation, Air India PR has been brutally savaged by the bureaucratic bullying its staff have faced to the extent they have largely become victims of a Pavlovian response to the VIP syndrome. Special handle the 10 per cent VIPs and the hell with the unimportant rest…job is done.

One cannot underestimate morale and a bruised one that lies wriggling in the dust is scarcely conducive to a good experience. Along with being reliable, Air India’s PR has to be upgraded right across the board. At present, it is almost non-existent. Even its offices in milk and honey routes in the Gulf are grey and dull; lacking the 21st-century pzazz so needed in creating ambience and are run like extensions of New Delhi’s South Block.

This tandem exercise in OTP and courtesy depends largely on how Tata’s and their think tank will grapple with the mixed fleet they have taken on and the maintenance stress this causes as well as the drain it is on the bottom line when route and fleet don’t jell. Of the 125 strong aircraft, we have A319s, A 320-200s, Boeing 747s, Triple 777 series and Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s. 

Add to it now the AI Express fleet of 24 737-800 new-gen aircraft and one is hard placed to understand what the thinking was behind some of these investments. The reason why you can red flag the poor planning is that for years Air India has flown routes where there is loss and not been able to justify why it did so. Only 21 of its routes are profitable. As of February 2022, it served 53 domestic destinations and 35 international destinations in 26 countries. This airline flew Boeing 747s on one-hour flights. It also created luxury first-class cabins for the long haul that were never filled and yet it persisted.

Certainly, the intent after this takeover is there and who better than its original owners to bring about that change. The strongest card in the hand is the number of slots it has.

It holds 2,738 landing slots around the world across 42 overseas destinations apart from 4,400 slots at airports in India.

These are gold chips.

Deal the cards, let us play, Captain.


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