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Get off the runway

Why on earth do we need a national airline? Or at least why do we need one which is run so badly? Chanakya writes.

india Updated: May 12, 2012 23:30 IST

If you were hoping to fly out for your summer holiday on one of the new Boeing Dreamliners that Air India’s bought, let me just say, in your dreams. As Air India (AI) and Indian Airlines (IA) pilots battle it out over who should be trained on the uber aircraft, passengers as usual are firmly on the ground. So don’t hold your breath if you hope to actually take off on the national carrier any of these days as the pilots are on yet another strike, the sixth since 2009.

Poor Ajit Singh, the civil aviation portfolio, once coveted, has become a crown of thorns for him. But I must agree with him when he says that the concept of a national carrier exists only in some small countries which actually run them most professionally. But we continue with our flights of fancy here. With another massive R30,000 crore bailout package under its belt, the airline still cannot even get up in the air where it is meant to be. And if your blood is not boiling by now, the pilots now say that even if one per cent of their demands are met they will be happy campers.

One per cent? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on. The wishlist included first class travel for staff on duty, compressed promotions and all sorts of perks stopping short of daily supplies of Beluga caviar and champagne. And we are expected to think that they will rush back to their jobs for one per cent of their demands. Oh, and as the chief of the pilots’s union said, their only concern was the passengers.

And what a dandy way to show their concern — sitting at home reporting sick and making the poor passengers run from pillar to post to get to their destinations. I won’t even start on the fact that the tourist season has started with the maximum number of Indians flying out to foreign destinations. Should the national carrier not have been trying to mop up the traffic? That, clearly, would be too much to ask. So, we are toting up a daily loss of R21 crore.

It’s no use blaming successive ministers. The rot in the airline is far too deep. We have been going round and round the mulberry bush saying that the airline should first be made viable before trying to sell it off. For-give me if I am missing something, but I don’t see that happening in a month of Mondays. So we go on throwing good money after abysmal management eroding the Maharaja brand further and further by the day.

Singh is right, why on earth do we need a national airline? Or at least why do we need one which is run so badly? British Airways, Lufthansa, Qantas, Malayasian Airlines have all privatised. Smaller countries like Singapore, UAE, Qatar and Thailand have national carriers, but run by professional managements. Here we need to provide freebies to our political worthies, it would seem. And ensure that the airline’s staff can jet around the globe on their off-duty days?

It’s easy to be mad at the pilots, among the most pampered of airline staff. An AI captain gets R8 lakh a month, an IA captain gets R4-5 lakh. All I can say in their favour is that they are also reacting to not being paid for months. The other insidious trend has been the open interference of political parties in the pilots’ unions. I would like to know if the interfering political busybodies realise how much damage they have done by offering patronage to errant pilots. They haven’t helped the pilots either as more and more of them are given the chop by the management.

It is time to end this farce. AI has lucrative routes and parking bays in international airports. Auction them off to the highest bidder whether Indian or foreign. It has an impressive fleet of aircraft, let someone who knows the basics of management take them over and use them for the purpose for which they were bought — to fly people to their destinations.

The government has to admit that its core competence is not running airlines but running the country, not that it’s doing a great job of that. Now the-re are many Cassandras who will rail at privatisation. But look at it this way. If the government can’t hack it after all these years, it really needs to get off the runway. With more employees per passenger, 243:1 to be precise as opposed to the industry average of 150:1, AI is simply not going to turn the corner, period.

The government could do us all a favour by not making it difficult for someone efficient and competitive to come into the aviation market. This dog-in-the-manger attitude is hurting passengers the most and certainly the airline staff as well, though we aren’t wel-ling up with sympathy for them at the moment. So, stop repainting the aircraft, renaming it and pretending that AI is a lean, mean fighting machine. It is not, it will never be. So sell, sell, sell now. And our aviation sector will move from a fly-by-night to an actual flying operation.

First Published: May 12, 2012 23:26 IST