The very fact that Air India is no longer the ‘Maharajah’ speaks volumes about its present condition. Over the last decade, a series of events and decisions of the top leadership of the once prestigious national (international) carrier has resulted in its virtual grounding. The author, Jitender Bhargava, having spent over two decades with the airline, connected with both its communications and HR, including as its Executive Director, considers this book as his duty by the nation — to tell people from a ring-side view of what went wrong and how.
What began as a private airline, launched by no less than charismatic Indian industrialist J.R.D. Tata, became a national carrier, flying to different international destinations. Subsequently, at late Jawaharlal Nehru’s request, the government took over the airline, but left it to Tata and his professional managers to look after the operations. When Indian Airlines, another government-owned national carrier to take care of domestic operations, was born, the comparisons between the two became obvious and visible.
It was with the seeping in of what is called ‘public sector culture’ in Air India that things really started taking a nosedive. Just because it was government-owned, it became a virtual extension of the Union Civil Aviation Ministry and that remains the main major reason for Air India being unable to take off again.
Bhargava identifies three major events in the recent history of the airline that led to its ‘descent.’ The inability or unwillingness of the government to go in for disinvestment by finding a strategic partner, the massive and ill-advised aircraft acquisition programme, and of course the ill-timed and ill-planned merger of the two airlines. In addition, of course, comes the non-availability of sterling leadership to guide the airline through rough pockets, and the continuing political interference in the management of Air India.
In the late 1990s, there was a proposal by the Tata group and Singapore Airlines to become the strategic partner to provide professional management to Air India. But this fell through, allegedly because of vested interests. Since then, it has run into one financial crisis or another, quite often unable to pay its staff. To find an investor in the present financial health may be impossible.
As for the controversial aircraft acquisition programme, from an original proposal to acquire 28 aircraft, it was suddenly raised to 68, at an estimated cost of Rs. 40,000 crore — sometime in 2003-04.
Obviously, Air India could never really afford such a huge bill and it was up to the government to provide a sovereign guarantee. The airline has still not recovered from this trap.
The worst disaster till date has been the hasty decision in 2006 to merge Air India and Indian Airlines. Even if a professional road map was worked out, it was never implemented with any degree of sincerity. After seven years, it is yet to materialise either in the skies or on the ground, as Bhargava explains.
It is not as though the successive Chairmen/ Managing Directors, or the Union Civil Aviation Ministers did not know about the gravity of the crisis. But they did precious little to solve them.
The government has kept putting in some tranches of capital into the airline — either to pay salaries or to enable it to borrow more. These investments are neither substantial, nor have they come in time to save the airline. The few professional managers who could make a difference in its management left, and the bureaucracy from the Aviation Ministry found in the airline a comfortable posting to take — and they kept their political bosses happy.
This has been the sordid story of Air India’s descent. The Tata group has now tied up with Air Asia, and also with Singapore Airlines to look at two different carriers for domestic and international operations. Several private airlines have come into existence in the country, and some of them have failed. It remains to be seen if Air India, in any format, will become once more the ‘Maharajah’ of the yore and claim its rightful place among the airlines of India, and in the hearts of the burgeoning air passengers.
THE DESCENT OF AIR INDIA: Jitender Bhargava; Bloomsbury Publishing India, Vishrut Building, DDA Complex, Building No. 3, Pocket C-6& 7, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi-110070. Rs. 499.