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No soft landings

Bad management and political interference are responsible for the crisis in AI, writes Jitender Bhargava.

india Updated: Aug 11, 2011 22:55 IST
Jitender Bhargava
Jitender Bhargava

The government’s decision to soon replace Air India (AI) boss Arvind Jadhav is a welcome step. It was apparent almost a year ago that under his stewardship the airline is sinking fast. Even though one can say in Jadhav’s defence that he is not responsible for AI’s financial mess, the fact that the company has been performing sub-optimally on all key operational parameters with him at the helm can’t be overlooked.

Widely known for his poor man-management skills, Jadhav has not only failed to arrest the decline in AI’s fortunes, his tenure has also seen the national carrier consistently lose out on all key performance parameters: market share, load factor, aircraft utilisation, and employees’ morale. While all other Indian carriers have been increasing their revenue and reducing their losses, AI has been doing just the opposite year after year.

In my article (Airline on a free fall, Comment, June 13), I had asked two questions: first, how much more deterioration must take place in AI’s performance before the government will act and, second, isn’t two years enough to judge Jadhav’s capabilities?

It is clear that Jadhav enjoys the backing of a powerful lobby in Delhi and hence his lacklustre performance was consistently overlooked at the expense of the airline. While AI needs a 24x7 hands-on chief executive, Jadhav for some inexplicable reasons has preferred to operate from Delhi, only occasionally visiting Mumbai, his original place of posting. Mumbai is also the place from where bulk of AI’s operations take place and majority of the employees are based. There have been numerous occasions when more than two dozen senior officials had to fly down down to Delhi to attend a meeting with him, lasting for no more than an hour.

With no domain knowledge of the civil aviation sector, his priorities are different from that of the airline’s. Instead of fighting competition in the market by improving the product profile, he has been fighting his own employees. No less than a dozen senior officials at the level of executive directors and general managers were bulldozed into seeking ‘voluntary’ retirement. Several hundred others were transferred from one city to another in a whimsical manner upsetting smooth functioning.

With no faith in delegation, Jadhav’s another monumental failure was his reliance on a select band of handpicked executives. The over-centralisation of administrative power in key areas of human resource (HR) and commercial has not only led to delay in decision-making but also wrong decisions. Several key departments witnessed multiple changes periodically as if the management was adopting a hit-and-trial philosophy rather than evaluating the aptitude and competence of an individual for a particular job. Such experiments have indeed cost AI dear.

The ministry of civil aviation also seems to have lost control of AI, possibly because of the larger-than-life image projected by Jadhav. When I recently addressed a letter to the prime minister drawing his attention to the widespread belief that AI was being systematically sabotaged and seeking his urgent intervention, an official of the ministry called me back to ask as to what he should do with the letter. I asked him to ask for Jadhav’s comments and to get the wrongs corrected. His polite reply: Jadhav does not reply to our letters. Such is Jadhav’s disdain for the parent ministry.

Where does AI go from here? There has been no dearth of permutation and combination in the airline in recent years with devastating results — from nominating private sector stalwarts on the board of directors to appointing an expat chief operating officer.

As time is important, the government needs to tread carefully this time around so that the changes this time around would be 100% successful. As one who has been associated with the airline in the past, I feel that the safest bet lies in getting someone who has the domain knowledge and knows the national carrier well. It may not be easy to get one to agree to head AI though two IAS officers (Sunil Arora, who has headed the erstwhile Indian Airlines as CMD and Air India as MD in the past, and N Zaidi, currently secretary, civil aviation) are in active service. The incumbent finally zeroed on should be given a free hand to induct a dedicated team even if it has to include retired employees who have excelled in the fields of commercial, HR, finance and engineering during their time. A committed team of exceptionally brilliant officers is the need of the hour to salvage AI.

Since the other cause of AI downfall has been the ever-growing political interference and the fact that most IAS officers are prone to succumbing to it, the government must ensure that incumbent is free from external pressures by setting up an independent board for scrutinising all decisions.

It should surprise none that even though AI does not have funds to pay staff salary, it still went about sponsoring the International Indian Film Academy Awards ceremony in Toronto only a few weeks ago. No sane person would have taken such a decision unless he was under some extraneous pressure.

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

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 11, 2011 22:53 IST