IndiGo’s announcement that Aditya Ghosh will step down as the president of the airline came as a surprise to many in the aviation business. Ghosh who joined the airline as a general counsel steered the airline to not only become the biggest domestic carrier, but also the most profitable in the country. While his exit has led to many speculations, Ghosh answered most of the questions candidly but declined to comment on whether Air India would fund buyers or if he would be bidding for the airline with support from private equity funds. Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Surajeet Das Gupta.
1) Was this decision to leave a sudden decision or the end of boardroom drama as it is being described by many?
Well, a decision like this can never be sudden. It has been a difficult decision. One with mixed emotions. I cannot begin to describe the love and affection I have got from my colleagues. It’s been a dream run.
As I wrote to my colleagues, I have been in this current role for ten years now. This has been a relentless and non-stop effort. It wasn’t a marathon but a sprint. I was having a lot of fun in creating something that this country had never seen before. At the same time, I had been itching to do something new. I had been talking to the Founders, Rahul and Rakesh for a while. I have a great relationship with them. We have worked closely for nearly 16 years. So it took me a while to convince them that I am serious about handing over the reins and plan on doing something different. Having built an industry leading product and a team that is truly world class, I felt that if there is ever a time to step back and think about what next, this is as good a time as any.
With a solid track record, robust processes in place, an experienced leadership team and an army of passionate hard-working employees, IndiGo is in safe hands.
2) How would you describe your relationship with the promoters?
The relationship I share with the Founders cannot be described in a few sentences and that will never change. I have learnt so much from Rahul and Rakesh. I am truly grateful for the opportunity they bestowed me with.
3) When the airline was small and below 100 planes you knew the number of each aircraft and the names of all the employees. As it has grown bigger with more complexity in processes, perhaps it needs a different kind of management with even expats joining in?
I think I still know the names of most of my colleagues. You can ask them if you like! I cannot begin to describe the relationship of pure love and affection I have with my colleagues. As I said, it has been a dream run. Doubt, if I could have asked for more.
As the company scales up, it needs to evolve in all aspects. It would be silly to think that what got it here will get it to where it wants to be. We need to put together strong building blocks for the future. As we have been saying for a while, we have to build a world class team that draws talent from all over the world. That would mean attracting the best, irrespective of whether they are Indian or foreigners. Too much drama is being read into this. The goal is to create a winning team.
4) The international game is very different and you have been very cautious in your foray which is also reflected in your market share
Now as IndiGo has a larger global ambition and going to Europe and then the US, as well as fly short hauls within Europe one needs international guys to run the show.
What is a needed is a team that is the best in the business. To use a sports analogy, you want to be a team that wins the game irrespective of which stadium you are playing in and what the weather conditions may be on that day.
5) Many people are saying that the appointment of expatriates led to your departure.
While it sounds dramatic, it is just not true. These are colleagues of mine and I have a lot of respect for them. We have been saying for a while, we have to build a world-class team that draws talent from all over the world. That would mean attracting the best, irrespective of which passport they carry. Would it have been more palatable if we had just stayed stagnant and not strengthened the team? No. We need to put together strong building blocks for the future. As I said, you want to be a team that wins the game irrespective of which stadium you are playing in and what the weather conditions on that day may be.
6) Were you not keen on bidding for Air India?
Not sure where this is coming from. But I can tell you this much that once a decision is made by the Board after adequate deliberation, it is a team decision and each one of us believes in putting in our best effort.
7) You were obsessed with one plan configuration to cut costs while the owners wanted one plane configuration for only one kind of service. To expand business - like going regional - one had to go for different aircraft and manage more complexities. You were not keen on that. You were only concentrated on cost and profit not on growing beyond just a domestic low-cost carrier. What do you say about that this criticism?
As I said, once a decision is made by the Board after adequate deliberation, it is a team decision and each one of us believes in putting in our best effort. Now coming to growth, let’s look at the past ten years that I had the privilege of leading this incredible organisation. I came into this operating role of leading the airline when we were flying less than 20 airplanes. Now it’s over 160. I think we had less than a hundred daily flights. Now it’s over one thousand to over 50 cities. The largest airline operation that India has ever seen. We had not broken even then and since then, not only has the airline had an unbroken track record of profitability but today, it’s one of the largest publicly listed companies in India, with the stock price having nearly doubled since IPO. We were about 1100 employees then and today we are over 17000. We started international operations. We started regional operations. Operationally, it’s hit the ball out of the park – best on time, best technical dispatch reliability; lowest cost structure; nearly the least number of customer complaints. The organisation has been on a secular growth trajectory irrespective of which challenge came its way. And finally, a relentless focus on costs with an aim to create a high quality product is a good thing!
8) The Pratt and Whitney engine choice was made by you because they offered a cheaper price rather than other options. It cost the company hard. Question is whether it was your decision or was taken by Gangwal and other promoters?
These kinds of mammoth decisions are not made by individuals. Neither are they taken on the basis of one parameter. Pratt & Whitney is one of the most well-respected companies globally with an incredible heritage and legacy. Only time will tell that this will turn out to be a game changer for the future.
9) The airlines saw major challenges in terms of staff behaviour. So when a passenger was beaten up you defended the employees and sacked the staff who took a video. Then you apologized. Could the airlines have handled this issue better?
It was regrettable. Unfortunately, in the frenzy of breaking news, facts are often ignored and perception becomes reality. But one has to get comfortable with the fact that when you are a leader, whether as an individual or as an organisation, people will talk about you. That is the burden of leadership that one must bear. Every day and every year will throw up its own unique challenges. It is the job of the leader and the role of the leadership team to mitigate those challenges; learn from them and come out stronger, which we did each time over the past decade.
10) You have submitted to the parliamentary committee that because you hire from small cities they are not used to ‘proper behaviour’. This statement has been seen as inexcusable as you can't justify this to customers who pay for service.
That is just plain wrong and false. I never said that. And if anyone cared to take a few minutes read the transcript of my deposition before the Standing Committee of the Parliament, they would know how inaccurate this is. What I said was simply (and I had spoken in Hindi) that we hire from various cities and towns and regions of the country with colleagues coming from a variety of linguistic backgrounds. And it is not fair to expect everyone to suddenly start speaking fluently in English in a few weeks. Look at our team. It will be difficult to come up with another example in corporate India, where the team is as diverse as IndiGo in terms of ethnicity; educational backgrounds; gender; geography and so on and so forth. Every month we celebrate a colleague who has overcome some challenge or obstacle to rise above and beyond their traditional expectations and are chasing their dreams at IndiGo. And I am not only proud of each of them. I am inspired by them. I know I am sounding extremely emotional but this is a cause that is so close to my heart that I felt personally offended by it.
11) Was going to the courts against DIAL so that you did not have to shift to T2 the new terminal not right in spirit?
While it’s in the past and we respect the decision of the court, we believe that the efforts made by IndiGo was in the best interest of the air passenger at large.
12) Many competing airlines say that IndiGo has stymied their efforts to get slots and flights in many airports especially at peak times by using their clout.
I don’t think any airline in India can complain about the lack of growth opportunities. Secondly, this is such an open and transparent process.
13) Have you prepared a plan to handle the huge increase in aircraft induction in the company for the next few years?
Any world class organisation should always try to be future ready.
14) Ok let’s change tracks. What is your view on marketing versus product?
A good marketing campaign is one that is in sync and aligned with the attributes of a high-quality product. It is not enough to have an attractive wrapping paper. Customers see through the wrapping paper quickly. They come back to a consistent and reliable product.
15) Rahul Bhatia has been heard describing you as the ‘Guru of Culture’. IndiGo is known for its people culture. What has been the reaction of your colleagues to this announcement?
That’s really very kind of Rahul to say. The people culture at IndiGo is just incredible. I cannot begin to describe the love and affection I have received over the years. I cannot thank my colleagues enough for that. It’s overwhelming to receive hundreds of emails and over a thousand WhatsApp messages and comments on my Instagram page. I have been getting emails from parents and family members of employees. It certainly makes me believe that I must have done something right! These memories will be etched in my heart always. Having said that, no individual is bigger than the organisation and I am confident that these most passionate employees will take this airline even higher.
16) What do u plan to do after this? Will you be in the aviation business?
It is too early for me to comment on that. All I can tell you is that as I pause to think through the next adventure, I am ever curious and passionate about new things and I have kept an open mind.