The IPL fiasco and other headline-grabbers have deflected attention from Air India (AI) inducting its first expatriate Chief Operating Officer (COO), Gustav Baldauf. The government appears to be convinced that the only way left for turning around AI is by appointing an expatriate airline executive since all previous attempts to bring about a change through the services of handpicked IAS officers have failed.
But how can one be sure that this experiment will succeed? Past record doesn’t hold out much promise as successive managements of AI have miserably failed. One of the prime factors for failure has been the interference of the government in AI’s day-to-day functioning. If, indeed, an expat COO is so crucial for AI’s survival, why did the appointment take more than eight months?
With a track record of taking decisions that haven’t proved right for AI, care ought to have been exercised by the government to ensure that the incumbent COO has the ability to turn around AI’s fortunes. No such hope, however, has been aroused. It may be perplexing to note that most of the committee members who selected the incumbent from the short-listed five candidates had little or no understanding of AI’s mammoth and multifarious problems. Even the private sector members of the AI Board on the selection committee went through the presentation highlighting AI’s performance, its strengths and weaknesses for their understanding, many days after they had put their stamp on the incumbent’s candidature. Perhaps it would have made more sense if they understood AI’s requirements and then gone about the task of selecting the ‘turnaround’ COO.
The selection committee may have appointed a competent executive. But does his experience match with what is required or expected of him? It is common knowledge that the COO-designate was with Jet Airways till four years ago and was looking after flight operations, which is only one of many functions. When and where did Baldauf master the art of turning around
a company riddled with insurmountable problems?
A few weeks’ delay in choosing an incumbent wouldn’t have brought the heavens crashing down. As many of the selection committee members were doyens from the private sector, one is tempted to ask if they would have followed the same procedure while selecting a candidate for one of the companies under them. More due diligence was certainly in order.
For the national carrier, this new ‘experiment’ may be critical and perhaps the last ray of hope for its survival. Thus, the need for greater caution in selecting the right incumbent. A candidate who would have had a track record of turning around companies; had the requisite knowledge of how a government company functions in India; knew what has been ailing AI and what the doctor’s prescription should be; had the requisite experience of dealing with unions and was deft in the art of keeping political bosses in Delhi happy would have found universal acceptance. But how many of these requirements does Baldauf meet? We don’t know yet.
Work practices in AI are different from those in private companies. AI, a company set up in the 50s has policies, practices that were good for that era. AI managers have not been so dumb as to not know what is needed. But what they have failed to get over the years has been the freedom to operate professionally. What guarantee can the government give now with an expat COO that it will allow AI to be run professionally? And if this assurance can be given, could one have had an Indian manager, from within Air India or outside, who would have been willing to take up the assignment thus obviating the need for an expat COO at a salary unheard of in the government sector?
Jitender Bhargava is former Executive Director of Air India. The views expressed by the author are personal