He was a frustrated passenger — with a difference. On Thursday, Praful Patel, the civil aviation minister, arrived at London’s Heathrow airport to be greeted by bowing and scraping Air India staff — along with protocol officers from the Indian High Commission — as he checked in for the evening flight to Bombay.
Except, that there was a problem. The minister’s flight was late. There was nothing wrong with the aircraft, which was waiting at the bay. Nor was there a weather problem. The snag was with the crew. Apparently, they were an hour late in turning up to take the flight. And so, passengers would have to hang around at Heathrow till Air India got its act together.
Not surprisingly, Patel blew his top. Why, he asked, should paying passengers be inconvenienced because of Air India’s ineptitude?
There was a Jet Airways flight leaving for Bombay at the same time — and it was on time, the crew having checked in on schedule. So, Patel switched airlines, abandoning the carrier that his ministry is in charge of, took the Jet flight and made it to Bombay on schedule.
The following day, he told the HT that his ministry would be launching an investigation into the negligence that caused the delay. “I have enough choices,” he said. “But what about the average passenger who relies on Air India and cannot change flights at a moment’s notice?”
There is an irony about the incident. Praful Patel has been more committed to Air India than most other civil aviation ministers. For several months, he spent three days of the week in Bombay trying to put the airline in order. When friends told him that this was a lost cause, he seemed cheerfully optimistic believing that his own private sector managerial experience would be of some use.
But, of course, his friends were right. The delay at Heathrow may have caused headlines in India but, considering the inconvenience other Air India passengers have been put to in recent months, it is a tiny blip.
Who can forget the TV visuals of angry passengers deplaning from an Air India flight from New York which had been held up in London for four days? “Never fly Air India,” they told the cameras. “We have never been treated so badly.” And what about all the other delays? The engineering snags that seem to ground flights on a weekly basis? The leased aircraft Sunderbans whose tyres burst regularly and which is a magnet for bird hits — it has been crippled five times in the last one year partly because its engine poses an irresistible attraction to our feathered friends?
Indians are used to a certain level of ineptitude from Air India. Even those of us — such as myself — who retain affection for the airline have never regarded it as a streamlined, efficiently-run organisation. But the present crisis goes beyond the inconveniencing of passengers. In fact, it goes beyond Air India and also includes the other national carrier — Indian Airlines or Indian or whatever it’s calling itself this week.
Lost in the haze caused by hundreds of circling aircraft and the air traffic control delays at our overcrowded airports is one disturbing fact: the aviation industry is bleeding. Even the so-called prestige carriers are in serious trouble. By some estimates, Jet Airways is losing a crore of rupees a day. King-fisher suffers similar losses.
And none of the low-cost carriers, launched with such fanfare over the last two years, is making a profit.
The reasons are not hard to find. Overcrowding at airports means that flights take up to 50 per cent longer than they should (as planes circle). This destroys all cost calculations because airlines end up paying much more for fuel than they had budgeted for. Moreover, as capacity increases, carriers try and fill seats by lowering prices to levels that are uneconomic. Nor is this fare war restricted to the domestic skies — the real cost of flying to London or Singapore is far cheaper today than at any time in the last decade.
Many of the low-cost carriers will probably go bust when the inevitable shake-out occurs. The big boys — the Kingfishers and the Jets — have enough money to ride out the crisis. But even they have been severely damaged. In such a situation, how will the two national carriers manage?
The sad reality is that Indian Airlines is no longer anybody’s carrier of first choice. The airline is in deep, deep trouble. Losses have mounted, many of its aircraft were grounded for several months for engineering reasons and staff morale is at an all-time low. Such is the drop in customer esteem that, for many of us, Indian Airlines has just dropped off the radar.
At Air India, the crisis is compounded by the scandalous state of its engineering function: many of the delays and cancellations are attributable to engineering failures. The airline falls back on a time-honoured defence: it has an ageing fleet and old aircraft tend to pack up more often. This is specious. Yes, Air India hasn’t bought many planes recently. But it has leased lots of aircraft in the last few years. And the leased aircraft have just as many problems as Air India’s owned fleet.
The other explanation offered by both airlines is as time-honoured: political interference. Nobody disputes that this is valid. Ever since the Indian Airlines board was dissolved at midnight during the Vajpayee government only so that the ministry could get rid of chairman Probir Sen, there is a long and sordid history of political manipulation. Sharad Yadav persecuted one of Air India’s smartest-ever managing directors. Shahnawaz Hussain (unaffectionately nicknamed Mickey Mouse by harassed airline executives) once delayed an Indian Airlines aircraft on the tarmac while passengers sweated inside only so that he could finish a function in the terminal building.
But it is not enough to blame politicians. The staff of both airlines do a pretty good job of damaging themselves — and their carriers. The senior management of Air India behaves like a dysfunctional family in a Star Plus soap opera. Managers spend their time plotting against each other and planting stories in the press. Executives will accuse their senior colleagues of stealing whisky from VIP flights. Transfers and postings matter more than the welfare of passengers. Sit next to a pilot on a flight and he will tell you how much he hates his bosses. And, on one memorable occasion, the vigilance officer went to a police station to file an FIR against the commercial director.
In such circumstances, is it surprising that passengers become the lowest priority? Speak to people on delayed flights and they will tell you that what angered them much more than the delays was the attitude of the airline staff. Nobody provided any information; often nobody was even to be seen; and not one airline official acted as though the delay had anything to do with him or her.
The saddest part of all this is that both airlines still contain many decent, competent and sincere employees. For all my reservations about Air India, there are many sectors on which I still prefer it to the alternatives. Many of my friends say that they would choose the warmth of an Indian carrier over the impersonal coldness of the ‘white’ airlines. And when the cabin crew make an effort (and the plane doesn’t pack up), Air India can still deliver a great flight. Much the same is true of Indian Airlines where the staff lack the tight-skirted efficiency of the private carriers but can make up for this with care and personalised service.
If we are to preserve the strengths of the airlines then we should accept that no matter how much dedicated ministers or chief executives try and turn them around, the rot has run too deep for mere managerial mantras. The only solution to a public sector mindset is to eliminate the public sector element itself.
During the Vajpayee government, attempts to privatise the national carriers floundered on non-issues. The exercise was predicated on keeping Naresh Goyal from getting control of Air India. In the process, nobody bought Air India, Goyal’s Jet Airways began operating international flights and proceeded to run a far better service than Air India can manage these days. When the Tatas tried to get involved, political lobbies rebuffed them as well.
It is now staggeringly obvious that neither national carrier can survive into the next decade as a viable operation. Privatisation is the only answer — for the sake of both airlines, the harassed passengers and you and me, the taxpayers, who pick up the tab. If the airports can be privatised, then why not the airlines?
Praful Patel should cut his losses. He has done his best to improve the airlines. But the government should accept that one man alone cannot fight market forces. Somebody should put a quiet word in Prakash Karat’s ear and new plans should be drawn up to privatise Air India and Indian Airlines. There is simply no other alternative.
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