The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: In defence of Air India, the airline everyone loves to hate
The government appears to have given up all hope of privatising Air-India before the elections. Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu suggested as much in conversations with the media. And the latest announcement by Air-India that it is going to revamp its business class suggests that the airline has decided as no sell-off is imminent, it might as well get its act together.
Mention Air-India to most Indians and the reactions are usually negative. You will be told that it is a drain on the taxpayers’ resources. Passengers will complain about how bad the service is. You will be assured that the flights are always late. And so on.
I am in a minority because I am an Air-India loyalist. I have been flying Air-India since I was a small boy and while I will not attempt to defend the indefensible, I do think Air-India gets a bad rap. And the people who work for it --- some of whom are the finest in the business --- get the worst of all worlds. They do not get the appreciation they deserve from passengers who do not understand the handicaps they work under. And they are used by cynical politicians who exploit their loyalty to the airline.
Here, in no particular order, are some of my thoughts about Air-India. (Most of this is about the international wing; the old Indian Airlines side deserves a piece of its own.)
Management: Air-India was created as a public sector airline out of an old Tata-owned private carrier. This was not unusual at the time. Most airlines the world over (with the exception of America) were owned by the state.
But there was a broad agreement that the government would take a hands-off attitude. Till 1977, JRD Tata was Chairman and Aviation Ministers tended to be people like Dr Karan Singh who respected JRD and gave Air-India the freedom it needed
Then, in 1977, the foolish Morarji Desai sacked JRD Tata. Bobby Kooka, who created the Maharaja was also evicted from the Air-India building. When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, it was expected that she would return to the old ways. Instead RK Dhawan, her all-powerful aide, appointed a man called Raghu Raj to head the airline. Raghu Raj was not bad but the decline had begun. Since then, Air-India has been run like a government department.
Whenever governments have shown imagination and hired managers from the private sector, Air-India has flourished. Rajan Jetley and Yogi Deveshwar were both successful chief executives who made the airline profitable and ran it well. But the rest of the time, civil servants and ministers have treated the airline as their plaything.
There have been a handful of good Chief Executives from the IAS but most others have been completely useless.The last great Chief Executive to rise from the ranks, Michael Mascarenhas was framed in baseless cases (he was ultimately exonerated but it was too late for Air-India) sending out the message to all Air-India managers: either you do what the ministry wants or you pay the price.
In the circumstances, are you surprised that Air-India is in such a mess?
Merger: Most people blame Air-India’s current problems on the merger with Indian Airlines. They are right. And they are wrong. The merger idea was not new. As far back as 1991, it was being seriously discussed by the government. And in purely theoretical terms, it has always made sense to combine the fleets.
The problem was the way in which this merger was executed: too quickly, without enough planning and without taking into account the completely different characters of the two airlines and their corporate cultures.
So yes, the merger was done all wrong. But no, it was not a bad idea and it is not the root cause of Air-India’s problems.
The government: There have been good Aviation Ministers and there have been bad ones. But it really hasn’t made a difference. The problem is not with the individuals but with the system. At any given time, the head of Air-India does not really report to the Minister. His boss is the Secretary. And in operational terms, the guy who really calls the shots is the Joint Secretary in the Aviation Ministry who handles Air-India. No commercial enterprise, let alone one as massive as Air-India, can flourish if Joint Secretaries who have zero management experience try and run it.
In no other country in the world --- except possibly for the odd banana republic— do middle level bureaucrats have so much sway over a multi-million dollar enterprise like Air-India.
Government Policy: This is a controversial subject. Till Madhavrao Scindia became Aviation Minister in 1991, the government of India routinely denied foreign carriers the right to operate a sufficient number of flights to India only to protect Air-India’s market share. Scindia dispensed with the policy, it became easier to fly to India, tourism boomed and --- what do you know? – so did Air India.
Under Yogi Deveshwar, who Scindia appointed, the airline was making a profit of one crore in a day in 1993. (That was 25 years ago so in today’s money, that is the equivalent of Rs 10 core a day!)
The situation grew more complicated after private airlines started flying abroad. The government, correctly, took the line that they should also be given the right to operate international flights.
None of this should have damaged Air-India. But it did. Partly, it was that the foreign airlines and private carriers offered a better flying experience than Air-India.
But partly it was because – or so most Air-India staff believe --- the allotments of rights were skewed. I don’t accept the Air-India staff’s contention that their airline was held back to benefit Jet and Kingfisher. But they do have a case when they say that either through design or stupidity, the government allowed Emirates to become our real national carrier and exported our hub to Dubai.
One of the arguments in favour of the Air-India/Indian Airlines merger was hub-and-spoke. It was claimed that Air-India’s domestic arm would fly passengers into Delhi or Mumbai from where they would board flights to a variety of international destinations.
Well, it has not worked out that way. Air India needs more direct flights out of Mumbai. And the most convenient option for Indian passengers is to fly Emirates to Dubai and then take an international flight from there.
Dubai, not Delhi or Mumbai, has been made our hub.
Inflight: I won’t focus on the economy class experience because that, sadly enough, in this era of cheap flights, is uniformly bad across most carriers.
But since Air-India is talking about its premium experience, it is worth comparing two fights I took over the last month. The first was Air-India to Madrid and back. The other was Jet to London to back.
No one will be surprised when I say that Jet offered an international experience while Air-India had a distressing public sector quality about it. But here’s what made the difference.
Details: Air India often does not bother to load menus. This happens on flight after flight. Its crew struggle with a basic lack of support. On one flight, a year ago, they said they could not serve wine because the galley did not have a corkscrew.
Food: All airline food is pretty bad. And nearly all of it comes from the same three or four flight kitchens. So only two factors account for the difference in a quality between airlines. The first is price. Some airlines (Vistara, for instance) pay more per meal. I suspect Air-India pays the least.
The other is quality control. You need someone with brains and experience to design menus. You need somebody to conduct quality control checks. Air-India seems to have neither.
Wine: I don’t like drinking on planes because often you end up drinking more than you should because of the sheer boredom that can set in during a nine-hour-flight.
One of the advantages of travelling Air-India business class is that I never have to worry about being tempted to drink.
It has the worst, nastiest, cheapest selection of wine of any business class on any airline anywhere in the world. I wouldn’t drink this swill even if you paid me to.
Comfort: The Air-India Dreamliner is a wonderful aircraft, better than the planes the competition flies on the same routes. But the maintenance is sloppy. Planes can be dirty. Flying to London last year, my seat did not come up --- it only reclined. On the way to Madrid, the inflight entertainment system developed glitches.
The People: I always divide the people of Air-India into three categories. The first is the managers, many of whom are very good though, of late, standards have begun to drop alarmingly. One problem is that Air-India managers are much in demand from other airlines. So the ones you deal with are either the loyalists or people who are so bad that nobody else wants to hire them.
As a generation of first rate managers retires, more and more of the rejects are rising to the top.
The second category is ground staff --- the people the passengers deal with first. Some years ago Air-India outsourced its ground handling to a separate entity that handles other airlines.
Now, here’s the thing. When this entity handles Vistara or Singapore airlines, the service is fine.
But when it comes to Air India the handling is a disgrace. I can’t generalise because I mostly fly out of Delhi. (Though when I have flown Air-India from Bangalore, the ground handling has been very good. And on domestic routes, Hyderabad was very good.)
But I think it is safe to say that if the people who check in passengers at Delhi Airport were working for Jet or Vistara or any foreign carrier, they would have been fired a long times ago,. Many are semi-literate and ill-equipped to handle even the simplest check-ins. The moment a new passenger checks in, the service at the counter tells him that he may have made a mistake by choosing Air-India.
My loyalty to Air-India really stems from the pilots and the cabin crew who still retain a commitment to the values the airline was founded on.
Air-India’s pilots are world class professionals and while cabin crew standards can vary, the better crew members are easily the best in the business.
Flying back from Madrid a couple of weeks ago, I admired the hospitality and efficiency of the young hostess who was serving our cabin. She was so enthusiastic about her job that it was hard to believe that she hadn’t been paid her salary that month. (Air India keeps delaying and cutting salaries.)
As you would expect from an organisation that is in terminal managerial decline, Air India now plans to penalise cabin crew further. They will be shifted to even cheaper hotels and asked to share rooms.
This is beyond silly. Expenses on the stay of cabin crew are the tiniest fraction of the airline’s cost structure. These savings will make no real difference to the larger picture.
On the other hand, Air-India will lose the one thing it has going for it: cheerful, well-rested and enthusiastic cabin crew.
Only a full fledged moron could think that this is a good idea.
Privatisation: Of course! As soon as possible.
I have no idea why the last effort failed. But the government should not give up. The staff want privatisation. The passengers want privatisation. So who doesn’t want it?
A few babus, perhaps. But their views should not matter. They have done enough damage to Air-India already.
Meanwhile I will look forward to this proposed revamp of Air-India business class, the centrepiece of which appears to be the demoralisation of pilots and cabin crew.
Yes, I know. It’s just mad.