Air India needs political, financial support
Air India CMD Ashwani Lohani has an uphill task running an airline besieged with problems not of his own making. Last month-end, he had to quit an ongoing meeting at the CII headquarters in upscale New Delhi to rush to his Minister to explain a delayed flight from Delhi to Hyderabad which caused powerful Union Minister of Urban Development Venkaiah Naidu to cancel an important meeting in the Andhra capital.
Naidu was so annoyed with Air India that he took to twitter to attack the PSU carrier. His junior, Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapati Raju, had no option but to call for an explanation from Lohani. Enquiries subsequently revealed that the Air India flight to Hyderabad was delayed because the pilot (commander) of the aircraft did not turn up on time.
Lohani, who is trying his best to improve the airline’s on-time performance, is facing problems because of lack of synergy between two merged entities -- Indian Airlines and Air India -- even though the merger took place several years ago. Troubles refuse to end because of personnel issues.
For example, frictions often arise between former pilots of Indian Airlines and those of Air India on issues relating to promotions, transfers, pay and perks. It is not confined to pilots alone, but all other staff such as engineers, technicians, administrative and others down the line. In reality, the merger has created more problems than it has solved.
Indeed, Lohani himself has gone on record saying that the decision to merge the two PSU carriers was wrong as the merged entity failed to create the expected synergy. Lohani is right. Lack of synergy among staff, specially among pilots, is hurting the airline performance at all levels.
Consider this: An Indian finance professional (declined to be named) working in the US bought a confirmed return ticket to New York early this month along with family members. When he called up from Pune to Air India Mumbai for a routine reconfirmation for his Mumbai-Newark (US) flight, he was told that his name was not among passengers for that particular flight. The hapless traveller had to make desperate calls to Air India office at New York from where he had bought his ticket to secure reconfirmation.
Venkaiah Naidu’s or the young Indian finance professional’s were not the one off cases of Air India’s poor performance. Air India has been facing such issues for long. More so, after the merger. No wonder, the national carrier lost out in business. Not just the expatriate Indians, who once loved to fly Air India because of the ethnic charm, took to other carriers. Even domestic flights suffered as passengers got alternative and better choices. Today, Air India has a debt of over Rs 40,000 crores, mainly on account of lack of business.
While lack of synergy following merger remains the key factor for Air India’s poor performance, the Government’s vacillating policies have played no less role for its troubles. This includes both the UPA and the NDA government of Narendra Modi. The UPA government always kept the PSU carrier under leash, keeping it on the chopping block for disinvestment. The proposed sell-off did not take place during UPA regime because of a sagging market and a lackadaisical effort.
The Modi government first announced that it would strengthen the national carrier by putting more money into it and make it more professional. Now, just a few weeks ago, NITI Aayog stated that Air India should be disinvested. At a time when Air India under energetic Lohani was making operating profit for the first time after several years, the disinvestment issue came up from nowhere. Such untimely pronouncements only lower the morale of the work force which is already under stress following failed merger.
While releasing the new aviation policy to the media about a fortnight ago, Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapati Raju was at pains to reply to questions relating to disinvestment. And, in the process, added his own. “But who will buy Air India in this condition?” Raju shot back, obviously referring to the losses it had made over the years.
Lohani is in an unenviable situation. He knows that demerger is not possible now and that he has no option but to work in this stressful atmosphere. Luckily for him, green shoots of revival of Air India are visible in the form of operating profit for the first time in many years.
The Air India CMD needs support, both political and financial. If he is given full autonomy and complete non-interference from bureaucracy, Air India may come out of the woods. It is in the interest of the country that Air India is strengthened as a national carrier. Who can forget the massive evacuation operation of stranded Indians that it successfully carried out in the Gulf war?
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)