The appointment of Rohit Nandan as chairman and managing director of Air India marks the beginning of yet another attempt by the Government of India to restructure the public sector airline and effect a turnaround. Several attempts made in the past failed miserably, plunging the airline into a deeper financial mess. Air India reached a stage when it could pay neither its employees nor its fuel suppliers. The government has approved a plan to inject fresh capital and a tranche has already been paid. More is to follow this fiscal. But that seems a pittance for a national carrier groaning under a cumulative loss of Rs.22,165 crore plus a debt of Rs.22,000 crore. Air India, which had placed orders for 111 new aircraft, could take delivery of only a few. Since the complaints against its boss Arvind Jadhav were piling up and he antagonised all sections of employees, his continuance in office became untenable. Though the head-hunting committee looked beyond the administrative service for a new head, there were few qualified takers for this crown of thorns and the choice eventually fell on another officer from the Union Civil Aviation Ministry.
The government needs to finalise two plans for Air India — a turnaround plan and a financial restructuring formula. Air India has no choice but to go for the rationalisation of loss-making routes, the rescheduling of aircraft purchases, the return of leased aircraft that are underutilised, the rationalisation of human resources at various levels, and a possible reduction in contractual employment. This will naturally call for across-the-board consultation and consensus building. All sections of employees and their trade unions need to be taken into confidence if these plans are to be implemented smoothly. In a situation where government policy has favoured private airlines for whatever reason, the national carrier desperately needs a level playing field. If the idea is to persuade employees to accept some cuts in existing benefits or concessions, this cannot be a one-sided process. The approach to achieving operational profits for the airline must be balanced, equitable, and just. Ministers and officials must be asked to fly only Air India as a rule and the airline must be paid promptly by governments for VVIP movements and such special uses. Above all, the realisation must dawn on all stake-holders that this looks very much like the last chance to keep the erstwhile Maharaja in the skies.