Air India to hire 500 cabin crew, 50 pilots every month for its rapid fleet expansion: CEO Campbell Wilson

Air India Express will be the future low-cost airline after the amalgamation of the current Air India Express and AirAsia India: Air India CEO Campbell Wilson

Updated - April 19, 2023 09:55 pm IST

Published - April 19, 2023 03:31 pm IST

Air India Chief Executive Officer Campbell Wilson. File

Air India Chief Executive Officer Campbell Wilson. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

In an exclusive interview to The Hindu, Air India CEO Campbell Wilson takes us through the airline’s plans for induction of 470 aircraft into the fleet, the massive recruitment drive being undertaken to cater to the airline’s rapid expansion, the differentiation offered to customers through the low-cost airline and full-service carrier within the larger Air India group as well as the changes in the aircraft cabin that have already been brought about.

Out of the order of 470 Air India has placed, and the option of inducting another 370, could you indicate the plan for their phase-wise induction as well as share what will happen to the nearly 210 aircraft currently in your fleet. Will they all be retired?  

Well, I won’t give you details [on induction] because clearly our competitors would like to know.  

But this year, we are taking delivery of first six of the wide bodies that we purchased and 25 narrow bodies.  

Yes, there’ll be some aircraft that are retired, obviously. The Boeing 747s have already been retired, Airbus 319s are in the process of being retired as new aircraft come in. The Boeing 777-200LRs will be retired in a couple of years, or maybe a little bit longer than a couple of years. The Airbus 320 CEOs will progressively be replaced by the A 320 and 21 NEOs. So, it’s just a natural evolution and churn as you bring in newer generation and more efficient aircraft. But a number of aircraft will stay for quite some time. We announced that we’re spending $400 million on refitting the interiors of the 787s, 777-300 and so those those will stay in the fleet for 7-10 years depending on which aircraft. So, it’s a progressive path. 

When will it be time to exercise the options you have for 370 more planes? 

There’s a trigger date for each tail [unit]. It’s not a waterfall where you exercise everything or exercise nothing. It’s as we see the market going, as we see our own needs growing we will choose to exercise, or not, the options or purchase rights on a progressive basis. 

What will be the cabin configuration on your aircraft? 

It will be a complete mixture. Some will have two class and some will have three class or four class. And some will have one class. 

Air India Express will be the future low-cost airline after the amalgamation of the current Air India Express and AirAsia India and that will be a single-class configuration. The full-service carrier Air India, which subject to regulatory approval will include Vistara will have a range of configurations. Domestically and in many short-haul international markets probably two class. For long-haul markets, some will be two-class and include business and economy, or maybe three-class with business, premium economy and economy classes and for select markets such as the very long-haul and very high yield markets there should be a first class. 

The massive expansion will have to be accompanied by a large-scale recruitment of cabin crew and pilots. What is the plan for that? 

Let’s talk about the ground staff first. Air India didn’t recruit ground staff for 15 years and that includes areas such as IT that obviously move very fast. So, we’ve been recruiting people into those positions. That’s also where we have a huge opportunity with respect to integration with Vistara and AirAsia India. Here are some people, generationally, who are typically younger, and have been exposed to a private airline’s way of doing business, and the two can come together without displacement.  

For flying staff, just the sheer number of aircraft means bringing other airlines in is not going to solve the problem because they have only got enough crew for their operations and don’t have much to spare. Though there was a little bit of surplus that we brought. Nearly 43-45 pilots from AirAsia are going into Vistara and others are going into Air India Express, so we are optimising the pool.  

We’ve restored 20 aircraft to service that were long grounded because of absence of spares and other things. This year, we’re leasing 36 aircraft, which include 25 narrow bodies and 11 wide bodies, and we’re taking delivery of first six of the wide bodies that we purchased and 25 narrow bodies. 

To support them from the cabin crew side, we are ramping up to recruit 500 crew a month.  

On the pilot side, we’ve been recruiting more than 50 a month. Where the constraint is that the aircraft we have restored to service such as the 787s and 777s and the new aircraft we are bringing in, which are the 777s require wide body experience, licenses, captains and a lot of accumulated hours. But there just simply isn’t the pool of people internally or even in India.  

So that’s why we’ve had to bring in some expatriates temporarily so that they can allow us to bring in these aircraft until such time as we can train our own people to take their place.  

In my view, it’s clearly a win-win proposition because if we couldn’t get them from overseas, we wouldn’t be able to take the aircraft, which would mean we couldn’t grow, or add new markets, or carry more people. The first officer flying beside [the expatriate commander] wouldn’t have the opportunity, and neither would the cabin crew flying in the aircraft.

On the issue of crew, you recently announced a revised salary allowance. But there is some unhappiness that you haven’t reverted to pre-pandemic levels of 70 hours of guaranteed pay, but merely raised post-pandemic cut of 20 hours to 40 hours of pay. 

The guarantee is not the determinant of the take-home pay. The number of hours you fly is the determinant. And flying 70 or more hours has and will certainly become the norm. And the flying allowance regime we’ve put in place has an escalating factor so the more you fly, the higher the multiple of allowance you get. We’re also investing a lot in rostering, which was a manual process as a consequence of which it was not necessarily equitable. When it’s better systematised and more transparent, the distribution becomes much fairer and much more equitable. And, mostly airlines work on the basis of productivity — there is a fixed component, and there’s a component that is determined by flying and that’s clearly in the interest of the airline and also in the interest of the pilots.  

But are your salaries globally competitive for you to be able to recruit pilots at a time some parts of the world have a shortage, and will woo talent from here? For instance, Gulf carriers where many Indian pilots go to offer higher salaries, tax free income and free housing and schooling for children? 

It is clearly competitive relative to the local industry. There are always going to be anomalies around the world. There are different airlines that have different business models, ownership structures, objectives. And, we can’t control tax. But we can offer people many things. We can offer accelerated career development because the sheer number of aircraft that we’re taking means that any pilot currently in this system has a path to wide body or a path to command that is much faster than anywhere else in the world, and half the time in some cases. You can be based in India, and therefore closer to your family, if that’s what you prefer. There’s the flying for Air India at a time where we’re completely transforming it and you’re representing the nation. Can we offer people an attractive proposition? Absolutely. Can we offer them career development? Absolutely. Can we offer them part of the national mission? Absolutely. So different people, different priorities. 

Does the aircraft deal with Airbus and Boeing also including training infrastructure such as simulators. Air India has only four simulators to train its pilots. 

It all includes some support for establishing training capability. We’re talking to both of the manufacturers, both directly and in some cases, their simulator partners to work collaboratively in building a training academy that supports Air India, supports their fleet and India generally. 

We have four simulators now, we will need to multiply that by four to five times over the course of next few years. 

Coming back to your fleet, when does a customer begin to experiencing the feeling of flying the new Air India in terms of the interiors and the cabin product? 

I would hope they’ve started to feel it already. Our crew didn’t use to get paid on time. They represented a product where seats were broken, aircraft was dirty, in-flight entertainment didn’t work and catering was perhaps not up to standard. Now, catering has improved across the board, domestic and international. Pay is on time. Training is provided, new uniforms are provided. Most of the fleet has had a replacement of carpets, and seat cushions in the wide body fleet’s first and business class, and in-flight entertainment [screens] are more than 99% effective.

The economy class still has a way to go with about 80% [screens repaired] on average which is a consequence of supply chain constraints, and not money or intent. So, I would like to think that people would feel all of the changes in the seats, cushions, covers, carpets, curtains, catering, the positivity of the crew. And obviously, we are recruiting hundreds of new crew which augments the experience, the warmth, the freshness and vigour. 

On the route network, will there be some adjustments or will we see Air India and low-cost Air India Connect fly to the same destinations such as Doha, Dubai, Singapore?

Yes, I think they will. It’s also not unusual. If you look at other combinations where there’s a full service and low-cost carrier in the same group they tend not to overlap, but there are some markets large enough that both carriers can serve as their respective market segment. That will also potentially be the case domestically so that it may well be that on Delhi-Bangalore at 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m. is full service, and 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. might be low cost so that you are offering a lower price point on the timings of the day that are perhaps more attractive to a leisure traveler. This is seen in Qantas and Jet Star and also Scoot and Singapore International Airlines. 

What will be the role of Singapore International Airlines in this partnership where it has 25.1% stake in Air India? 

The only contribution of Singapore Airlines is its processes and knowledge they have imbued into Vistara. There may be a couple of folks presently seconded from Singapore Airlines into Vistara that we want to retain within the group, And then as a 25.1% shareholder, they will contribute their advice at the board level through their representative. But beyond that, nothing. We have the opportunity to talk and they can offer and we can take, and officially speaking, no.

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