Ilker Ayci | In the pilot’s seat 

The former Turkish Airlines chief now has the task of turning around Air India

February 20, 2022 10:55 am | Updated 07:17 pm IST



Ever since the official announcement of the Tata Group taking over Air India, there has been a lot of speculation about who would lead it. Some media reports had suggested that Fred Reid, the aviation industry veteran of 35 years, would be the chosen one. Others had speculated that the position would go to Alex Cruz, another veteran who until recently was with British Airways. And that’s why the recent news of the appointment of Ilker Ayci as the Managing Director and CEO of Air India has left many industry observers and the media surprised.

Mr. Ayci, unlike Mr. Reid and Mr. Cruz, isn’t an aviation industry veteran — Tata Group Chairman N. Chandrasekaran did remark that “Ilker is an aviation industry leader”. This is also what differentiates him from other overseas chiefs who worked in Tatas’ other aviation brands in the past. For instance, Phee Teik Yeoh and Leslie Thng, who were earlier at the helm of earlier at Vistara, Tatas’ joint venture with Singapore Airlines, have had very long careers in the industry.

Mr. Ayci’s identity with aviation is almost entirely tied to his stint at Turkish Airlines, which he led for almost seven years till the end of January this year. Prior to this, the Istanbul-born, 51-year-old Ayci was the chairman of the Republic of Turkey Investment Support and Promotion Agency. And prior to that, he had a stint with the insurance sector. Early in his career, he was an adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was then Istanbul’s Mayor. Mr. Erdogan is the country’s President now. A picture that has been much shared ever since the news of Mr. Ayci’s appointment is one from 2018, during his wedding, in which Mr. Erdogan is seen beside the couple.

The new chief has an academic background in political science and public administration. A research stay in political science at the Leeds University was followed by a master’s in international relations from the Marmara University in Istanbul.

His background is seen as a strength in many quarters. A Gulf News article pointed to the significance of Mr. Ayci’s appointment. It quoted Vinamra Longani, head of operations at Sarin & Co, which is a law firm specialising in aircraft leasing and finance, as saying: “Those familiar with Ayci’s past know the Turkish aviation veteran’s hiring is a no-brainer.” Further, he is quoted as saying that Mr. Ayci “has worked in the insurance industry and has a finance background. In India, where the aviation sector is highly regulated, dealing with the government is a part and parcel of every airline C-level executive.”

Success story

Mr. Ayci’s success at Turkish Airlines is widely acknowledged. He is credited for everything from increasing the number of destinations that the airlines flies to to the number of aircraft it has. Not just that. Though Turkish Airlines incurred big losses like much of the industry during the first year of the pandemic, it returned to profitability the next year. This turnaround was ascribed to cost cutting. And yet, he said in an interview with the Haberturk news website during the pandemic, and which was reported by Bloomberg, that Turkish Airlines won’t cut staff levels. He is quoted as saying, “We see 2020 and 2021 not as years of profitability, but as years to protect employment.” Further, “Our job is to resist layoffs, as much as we can afford to.”

In an interview to aviation vlogger Sam Chui, he said: “We had no lay-offs in the company, thanks to our own turnaround plan and by having good risk management. We made salary cuts but we told our staff that we will make no lay-offs during the entire pandemic, however long it takes.”

Mr. Ayci now faces the challenge of turning around Air India, which under the Government has been bleeding money for a long time. According to the terms of the deal with the Government, for one year, it wouldn’t be able to offload more than 51% stake in the carrier. Similarly, it also wouldn’t be able to retrench any employee for one year.

Though things are improving with the threat of the pandemic easing, the Indian aviation industry is far away from profitability. An ICRA note in August last year, before the slowdown caused by the virality of the Omicron variant, said India’s aviation industry could likely report a new loss of ₹25,000 crore-₹26,000 crore this financial year. That’s the industry the new Air India and Mr. Ayci are trying to take off from.

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