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Many years ago I was at a friend’s place for dinner. His wife who was working for Indian Airlines (this was before the merger) proudly took me to the kitchen where she showed me hundreds of cubes of jam and butter along with sachets of ketchup. She proudly told that she had one year’s stock of these. I remember saying to myself that an airline with a culture like this cannot last long.
The fact that it has survived, when many airlines in India and across the world have perished, is purely because of government largesse. Air India’s net debt stands at a staggering Rs 55,000 crore, with losses of over 50,000 crore. The market share for Air India has shrunk to 14 per cent. In April 2017, its domestic market share was a paltry 12.9 per cent, with the lowest passenger load factor.
Let’s face it, politicians, bureaucrats and employees have treated Air India like a milch cow. Air India is perhaps the only airline in the world which still offers free tickets to sons-in-law. My cousin who is forty is based in London and doing very well in the corporate sector. He often swings by to New York on long weekends to meet friends, thanks to the above policy.
I recall another close friend, a senior and upstanding bureaucrat telling me bitterly how he managed to deplane four paying first-class passengers on an Air India Delhi-London flight to accommodate a minister and his family in the busy Christmas season.
A couple of years ago, I used to regularly fly Air India on the Newark-Mumbai sector, as it was a direct flight, landed at Mumbai at a decent hour and was also the most economical. Once flying on this sector, I found the air hostesses and the purser extremely solicitous. They were coming ever so often and asking me if I needed food or drinks; offered to make my bed and so on. I was sure that Air India had confused me for a politician or senior bureaucrat. When I mentioned this to the purser, he said and I quote, “We know that you are Mr Sen; you are the only paying passenger in business class”.
Nowadays, I fly often to Riyadh for board meetings for a joint venture and return by Air India. The aircraft has twenty-four business-class seats and at best one or two are occupied. I asked the purser the reason for this and he frankly mentioned that apart from government officials, whom he called “free upgraders”, nobody flew Air India business class. On asking him why Air India was flying this airline configuration on this sector, he didn’t have a reply.
A look at media reports over the past twelve months shows that Air India had the dubious distinction of being number one in the world as far as major delays were concerned. No wonder on social media sites Air India gets very poor reviews. Apart from the handful of reviewers who are pleasantly surprised by Air India’s performance (because their expectations are very low), the vast majority swears never to travel in the airline again. Quotes from a travel blog in the past thirty days have customers writing (and I reproduce verbatim) “The worst airline experience I ever had”, “Never Fly Air India again”, “Air India should just go into trash”.
The previous chairman of Air India, Ashwani Lohani, came with a good reputation for administration and seemed to have been given a free hand by the government, but even he was unable to stem the tide. The decision to merge Indian Airline and Air India without a clear rationale, the thoughtless decision to lease close to 100 airplanes and put the airline into a debt trap and the giving away of prime airport slots for pecuniary gains brought the airline to its knees. Over the years, a culture of mediocrity, inefficiency, nepotism and corruption militated against any turnaround. As the saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and Lohani struggled to change the culture.
The amount that the government would save by privatising Air India or making a strategic disinvestment could give a boost to its pet programmes like Skill India or Start up India or badly needed spends in education and health. To pour more funds into a bottomless pit just so that a narrow group of elected officials and bureaucrats could treat it like their own is against the feudal VIP culture the government seems to be against, as well as the ethos of ‘Sabka Sath Sabka Vikas’. However, time is running out and the government needs to move quickly before the value of the airline plummets so much that there are no takers left.
Sandip Sen is the CEO of a major BPO company and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are his own