For revenue generation, which is what will sustain the airline, the national carrier needs to improve management-employee relations, rebuild its customer base and relearn lessons about quality of service

The consortium of banks has done its bit to rescue Air India. The government of India, led by the Civil Aviation Ministry, has sewn together a Rs.30,000-crore bailout plan for the airline. But this alone is insufficient to revive the ailing Air India, once known as the “Maharajah.” Whether the airline can overcome its existential crisis is now almost entirely up to its management and staff.

Both have erred repeatedly. Air India has not been known for good management practices, nor have the government and the political leadership allowed the national carrier to function on sound, independent, commercial lines. On their part, the employees especially the highly-paid pilots, have often held the airline and its passengers to ransom through strikes, protests and by reporting “sick.” The government has also failed, most often, in providing professional leadership and management to the airline, invariably posting a “babu” to run the airline, without giving him a free hand.

So how can Air India really come out of this mess and start rebuilding its image and brand loyalty? Obviously, revenue generation alone can sustain the airline and ensure that the lending banks and the government not only get back the loans and advances received till date, but also start getting a dividend on their investments.

Three factors

For this to happen, three factors are key: industrial relations, customer relations, and quality of service to passengers. Paying attention to these could help Air India get back traffic and generate the revenue to recoup the airline. From a market share of over 60 per cent even when the aviation sector was opened to private competition, to just about 17 per cent now, Air India has managed to steadily lose out on its passenger and cargo traffic over the years. Even Union Ministers and bureaucrats try to avoid flying Air India, though they are not above doing their best to misuse the airline when they cannot twist the arms of a private airline's management.

Whatever the conditionalities that the banks may weave into the terms for rescheduling the airline's loans, and irrespective of the amount of money the Centre pumps into Air India, nothing can succeed without good industrial relations. Trade unions and employees must realise that this is not the time for agitations or demands. They have to ensure that the airline survives and recovers lost ground. Negotiations, with a clear approach of give-and-take, must be the only instrument to redress grievances; not strikes, nor the work-to-rule agitations. After all, if salaries and dues have to be paid, traffic has to pick up.

Customer relations

As for customer relations, Air India needs to build new bridges, new agreements with States, corporates, exporters and importers to get them on board. Right now, ordinary passengers and India Inc. have lost faith in the airline on account of the strikes, the cancellations, and the rescheduling of flights. The airline's frequent flier programme has all but collapsed because of the mess that the national carrier finds itself in today.

Above all, the quality of service is something that Air India needs to relearn from its rivals. From the check-in counters, to the cabin crew, to the refreshments served on board, and the handling of special guests or frequent fliers, it is the way that passengers are received and treated that endears them to an airline. Even at the height of its recent crisis, Kingfisher staff bustled around in airport terminals, fussing around passengers. Jet Airways too gives its guests, especially frequent fliers and business class passengers, the full treatment. Despite being a low-cost airline, with no variety in its on-board refreshments that have to be paid for separately, Indigo has consciously built its image and brand with its clean and punctual service. As for international flights, the less said about treatment of Indians on Air India the better. But these days, not even Indians are willing to take this airline, except perhaps the flights to the Gulf.

Now that the much touted “Dreamliner” 787 aircraft will be joining the Air India fleet, the time appears ripe for the airline to begin a massive reconstruction exercise — to rebuild the airline, its image, and brand loyalty. If this attempt succeeds, the Centre must look for the earliest opportunity to disinvest in the airline, or search for a strategic partner to take over the management of the airline to make it efficient and commercially viable. That seems to be best option for a bright future.

jayanth@thehindu.co.in

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