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Airline on a freefall

Despite all checks and balances, how did the iconic Air India come to such ruin? Jitender Bhargava writes.

india Updated: Jun 12, 2011 21:20 IST

Even almost two years after Air India’s performance began to be monitored by the high-level committee of secretaries, the airline continues to slip on all key performance parameters. Why is Air India, once the national pride, being allowed to degenerate with no one being held accountable for its regrettable and shameful decline over the years?

The government and the powers that be — even if they had not understood the seriousness of the situation when the airline was losing its market share month after month, registering huge losses year after year and not being in a position to pay employees their legitimate dues in time — can no longer feign ignorance. The criticality of Air India’s finances is now in the open, now that it is being compelled to curtail its flight schedule because it has no money to pay the oil companies for the fuel needed to operate flights.

A pertinent question that begs an answer is: how much more deterioration should take place in Air India’s performance before the government would like to sit up, take note and initiate corrective action to arrest the decline? The government’s silence is making people question its intent, whether the government in its capacity as the owner is at all interested in ensuring the airline’s survival. If it isn’t — and one fully understands the political compulsions of not being able to say so — the government ought to muster courage and urgently spell out its plans rather than allow Air India to become a national disgrace.

It is both shocking and unfortunate that the ministry of civil aviation, the board of directors and the chairman continue to oversee and administer the company as if the current crisis is of an ordinary kind and that it will blow over with time without their having to do anything. It should be evident to one and all, howsoever indifferent and myopic, that Air India’s condition today is akin to a patient being in an intensive care unit requiring urgent treatment.

Rather than allow valuable time to pass and let the condition worsen further, the government needs to ask whether the present management team, headed by Arvind Jadhav, is good enough to salvage Air India? Jadhav has now been at the helm for over two years, a relatively good time to judge one’s capabilities based on what has been achieved thus far. Why hasn’t this evaluation been undertaken when our system of annual appraisal exists? If it has and the government has requisite faith in Jadhav’s capabilities to turn around the airline, it ought to share this confidence with the public because all trends — diminishing market share, mounting losses, falling public perception, inability to deliver a quality product that can match competition — point differently. Also, how much time should an individual be given before a person is judged as ‘no good’, certainly not till the expiry of one’s term? The same principle must be applied to the board of directors. Are the members good enough to provide effective leadership and what has been their contribution, if any?

Air India was once India’s foremost global brand. Today, it has ceased to be one. How did this humongous decline take place, given the numerous checks and balances: the parliamentary committee attached to civil aviation ministry, standing committee of Parliament, the committee on transport, the committee on PSUs all meeting regularly and reviewing performance? Could not anyone among the over 200 parliamentarians on these committees sense that something was seriously amiss and that corrective measures were called for?

Likewise, the ministers holding the civil aviation portfolio and the secretary of the ministry have been periodically reviewing the airline’s performance. What purpose have these reviews served? Additionally, you have the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Central Vigilance Commission to see if the rules are being followed and that there are no instances of wrong doings. With so many watch dog institutions in place and Air India’s performance under the so-called scanner, how has mismanagement and corruption-inspired mismanagement almost ruined this iconic airline?

It speaks volumes of the ineffectiveness of our system that we require to review the practice of parliamentary committees visiting PSUs to monitor performance. Air India’s riches-to-rags story can be an interesting case study both for analysing failure and devising new, effective systems.

( Jitendra Bhargava is a former executive director, Air India )

The views expressed by the author are personal