Every time a new incumbent is appointed either as minister of civil aviation or chairman and managing director of Air India (AI), a statement one gets to hear is, “I will restore the past glory of Air India”. Even after over two decades, the reality is that all incumbents have left the national carrier in a state worse than before they assumed office.
How else can one explain the perennial and consistent decline in AI’s fortunes, both financially and in terms of its market standing? Even the infusion of funds and induction of new aircraft have failed to arrest the declining trend. As the quest to regain the past glory remained elusive, it would be pragmatic if the new incumbent, Vayalar Ravi, first strives to ensure that AI’s fortunes don’t plummet any further. A mere expression of intent to regain the past glory, howsoever noble, can’t work. The fundamentals — political-free environment, sense of commitment, work culture, to name a few — that helped AI achieve its glorious status in the 60s and 70s don’t exist today. To translate the intent, one must know what has gone wrong with AI and what needs to be done to cure it of the malaise.
The ad hocism practised by the previous incumbent, Praful Patel, and his predecessors has failed to work. All of Patel’s successes in other fields of civil aviation stand negated due to his failure to control AI’s slip. His decisions to appoint an expat chief operating officer at an annual salary of more than R3 crore and nominating stalwarts from the private sector as independent directors of the board also failed the airline. Last year, with these individuals at the helm, AI slipped to the fourth spot in the domestic skies. Since the slide didn’t come about in a day and one could see it coming, the question is: what measures were taken by all those associated with running the airline to stem the decline? Somebody should be held accountable.
As Ravi assumes the charge of the ministry of civil aviation at a time when the national carrier is going through troubled times, time is of the utmost essence. As AI operates in a high profile sector, the media will always be generous while highlighting his statements, no matter how innocuous they are.
As someone who had been associated with the national carrier for more than two decades and held key management positions besides being the spokesperson, I believe that the agenda that the minister must pursue should include revisiting the composition of the existing board and senior management. Have they delivered, individually or collectively? If not, why? In their pursuit to steer the airline out of turbulence, are they on the right track?
AI can’t be allowed to become a laboratory for experimentation based on advisors with little or no knowledge of the airline. While one has heard a lot about the attempts to trim costs, little has been made known about the plans to boost revenues. AI’s load factor (number of seats occupied in an aircraft), aircraft utilisation and the yield (measured in terms of earning per kilometre flown) are among the lowest in the industry. Unless this trend is reversed, its finances will remain in a pitiable state. Ravi will therefore do well if he asks the ministry officials to monitor progress on these three key performance parameters, as they emanate from one single factor — passengers’ preference for an airline. As passengers will opt for AI in a competitive era only if it becomes an airline of choice, the management needs to spell out as to what it has done to improve the product quality, which should be deemed synonymous with service.
This is where the human element comes in. Employees, who should not be confused with unions and associations, have for long felt uncertain about the company’s future. The prime minister’s statement that AI will remain the nation’s pride has failed to instil the confidence that is needed for employees to consider the airline’s future — to which is also linked their own — as secure. Any intention of restoring the past glory will remain a distant dream till basic issues are addressed with sincerity and commitment at all levels.
Jitender Bhargava is former executive director, Air India
The views expressed by the author are personal