Air India chairman and managing director Ashwani Lohani is seeking to clear the runway for a smoother take-off for Air India with his recent remarks that staff need not observe petty courtesies, rather they should focus on work. His ire was directed at the practice of staff coming to receive him and see him off during visits. Earlier, he had said he would stop the system of upgrading to business and first class from economy and that he would start with his own family though they are entitled to business class. He has also stopped the practice of airline crew being allowed to travel on the same flights as their family members.
But Lohani needs political support for his attempts to professionalise the behemoth, which has been incurring losses for years. In 2015-16, the losses have apparently come down to ₹2,636 crore from ₹5,859.91 crore the previous financial year. This despite the fact that till March this year, the bailout package has amounted to ₹22,280 crore. The airline has also seen a decline in market share over the last three years as more nimble private carriers have shot past it.
The airline has many problems, one of which is the misuse by politicians and bureaucrats who seem to consider Air India their private carrier. Upgrades for VIPs are almost routine. Flight delays thanks to politicians turning up late have taken place with no negative fallout except bad press. A former civil aviation minister is reported to have commandeered a bigger aircraft on a route so as to accommodate his extended family in business class.
With low oil prices and more Indians travelling, the airline should be on top of its game. But crippling union problems and poor management over the years have clipped its wings. Even despite trimming down, the aircraft-to-employee ratio is 1:120 when the international norm is 1:100. In 2007, the ratio for Air India was 1:256.
If Lohani succeeds in inculcating a sense of professionalism in the airline and can resist the attempts by VIPs to put pressure on it to suit their own ends, he will have done a signal service to the carrier. He’s bound to run into turbulence, but at least he is charting a more realistic flight plan.