Saturday, June 27, 2009

Should Air India be saved?

Air India is in trouble. But not in as much trouble as it should be as a commercial aviation company. After all, it is India's national carrier and the government has pledged to save it with taxpayer's money. The Aviation Minister, Mr. Praful Patel, made a statement that the government will step in and bail out the company, provided the company is willing to restructure and become a leaner, profitable operation.

I do not know what options were on table for the Indian government, but the broader question is whether the government should intervene and inject tax money to keep things going. Obviously, it is politically convenient and that's exactly why this will be done. But, is it expedient to do so, and we must assess the impact this will have on commercial aviation in India.

To start with, bailing out a commercial entity like Air India is anti-competitive. Why give one company the access to public funds, and therefore an unfair advantage, over the other companies in the sector who are facing a similar market situation and have to fight it out. I don't see in what ways Air India is a national carrier - other than this is government owned - they don't fly Indians for free, service otherwise unserviced routes or is any cheaper than any other flying options. Rather, national carrier means having no accountability to the passengers at all, running late without apologies, and wasting money on useless campaigns when the basic services fall below desired levels.

This whole thing about 'restructuring' makes me laugh. Restructuring in what way? Air India is notorious for its generally arrogant, insensitive and inefficient staff [with many exceptions, I must add, but the good guys are outnumbered]. They have brought the airline to the brink. Would anyone be fired? Can anyone be fired? The government can not even handle redundancies in Private Airlines; it is unbelievable that they will ever be able to let anyone go in Air India itself.

To clarify, I am not a trigger happy manager myself, or even believe that the fear of getting fired is a good motivator at work. But then, knowing that nothing can get you fired is a great thing. Then, you try to get away with murder. Then you sink the airline by not working and expect the ordinary Indians to contribute their hard-earned money for upkeep of your lifestyle. And, this is exactly what is going to happen in Air India, because the government will bail it out and let it run as an usual business operation. Sometimes, though painful, a better way of sorting a tardy organization out is to let it face the consequences of its ineptness, face bankruptcy and go through the restructuring under fire.

It is painful, but that is the only way to change things. Otherwise, with government money, nothing will change. The IAS fatcats will keep running it the way they did forever. My everlasting image of Air India comes from one time I flew between London and Hyderabad and I must recount this here to justify why I feel so angry that this airline isn't being forced to change.

In short, I tried flying Air India between Heathrow and Hyderabad once. The flight was late, but the staff at the Call Centre did not tell me that or there was any information on Heathrow Web site. So, I land up, check in and then told that the flight is 'a few hours' late. Since I had a connecting flight from Mumbai to Hyderabad, and would be missing it if the flight is inordinately late, I approached the customer service staff for an alternative way. But, then, they would not listen. They said the guys in Mumbai will take care of it, and it is not their responsibility. I was frustrated, because I had a meeting to attend - and had run around the airport figuring out when the flight will go and whether there is any possibility of getting an alternate connecting flight arranged in advance.

Well, I admit that it is not so bad so far. This could have happened with any airline, but the customer service of Air India in Heathrow will possibly be most ignorant and arrogant set of people you will ever meet. But, then, I had two other defining memories that sealed the case of Air India to me:

(1) While boarding, and remember this was a 6 hour late flight and everyone was tired, it was a mayhem. The same customer service crew managed the process and they were clearly incompetent. There was a stampede the moment the door opened, and everyone pushed along without any regard to kids, older men and seat numbers [what is it?]. I remember standing there in disgust, and watching in particular a man on wheelchair who sat in quite silence, watching people streaming past him to get to the aircraft first. Indeed, he was left on his own mechanics, as his handler disappeared, possibly to get himself a cup of coffee. The man indeed look dignified and indifferent of what was going around him. The irony was, of course, that this man was Russi Modi, an Indian business icon and an one-time chairman of Air India. Whenever Air India is mentioned to me, I get this picture back in my mind.

(2) The second bit is a happy memory. I did manage to make a fuss about missing my connecting flight in Mumbai and managed to call my travel agent, who called her contacts in Air India, including a GM in Air India. I was of course immediately upgraded business class, received by a senior officer in Mumbai airport, driven through the crew routes and fast tracked through security and put onto a Kingfisher flight. This was so different from the first bit that I was mightily impressed, but I obviously knew that this exceptional [which would have been usual in case of another airline] customer service is being provided because my travel agent knew which strings to pull. I usually make my tickets online and do not involve a travel agent. I instinctively knew that Air India is not for me.

So, honestly, I don't mind calling Jet Airways or Kingfisher Airlines our national carrier. I actually think that this will be less embarrassing. The Air India unions of course has taken the Indian government and the public for granted and they are demanding that the Prime Minister should intervene immediately. And, that displays precisely the sense of entitlement that has brought Air India to the brink: if the government is ham-handed still, the same erosion of India's image will be allowed to continue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very good article... AI is total waste. Dump it.. Or else give it TATA without neta's interference, who can bring it to it's orig glory... AI has 1 fleet 750 employees ratio, whereas private airline has 1:150 employees and provide excellent service..

After working with airlines and travelling with so many airlines, I can very well say that bailout for AI will never work out.

Why should we pay tax for these white elephants? Our tax could be spent for building good airports.

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