The malaise of a maharaja

Once upon a time there was a beau­tiful princess who lived in a castle and one day a handsome prince rode by, saw her, fell in love and prompt­ly married her, after which they lived happily ever after. That was in a per­fect world.

By Bikram Vohra

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Published: Sat 22 May 2010, 8:30 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 3:44 PM

In the real world it is very differ­ent. Like with the Air India Mahara­ja. Like a frog on a lily pad, waiting to be kissed and saved from the evil spell cast upon him. Begging for it. And the princess taking a walk one day hears the frog’s plea. Kiss me, he says, show me your love and I will turn into a handsome prince, marry you and you and I will live happily ever after. Not on your life, said the princess and that night at the palace they feast on frog’s legs.

Much in the same way as govern­ment, bureaucracy and the spineless managements and unions of Air In­dia have been feasting on their com­pany for the past thirty years. There is no meat on the bone now and the bankrupt carrier has all but sur­rendered any pretence to survival. The vulturous picking of the carcass against the backdrop of a Rs 7,200 crore loss has reached its peak and not even the recent staggered pro­posal to privatise the airline is going to do anything to save it. The stench of defeat lies so heavily upon it that it would be easier to just start another airline rather than save this one.

That Air India was in free fall and about to go into broken wing mode has been obvious since the eighties. The first crack came in the 1974 strike by the IPG and the wedge it drove be­tween the pilots and other unions. Its rather weak-kneed end marked the rise of management as a jackboot­ed government controlled tyrant and over the next three decades the rath­er fond pet project of JRD Tata was mauled and raped by in­competence, avarice and sheer bureaucratic arro­gance. Run by proxy from the out-offices of the Minis­try of Civil Aviation by a slew of ministers and their minions (and even minister’s daughters) Air India turned from an ambassador in the sky to a punch bag for all and sundry.

By these machinations of the na­tion’s leaders and the emotional blackmail of her passengers Air India has been frequently diverted from its main aim of providing a service and making a profit.

Thirteen managing directors in two decades, a Delhi-based prejudice that has permitted Air India to be whittled away by its domestic sister airline In­dian Airlines, a shrinking of its route map after knocking off Rome, Frank­furt, Seoul, Sydney and the abortive US gateways for lack of aircraft and a string of promises to buy and stall fourth generation fleets based on route planning have all dented the corporate confidence. Not only has Air India allowed (been ordered to?) Indian Airlines to steal its internation­al routes it has been stunned into sev­enth place by competing airlines on the milk and honey Gulf routes and now shares a sliver of its earlier mar­ket share.

The old patriotic call is also muted and with alliances and code sharing blurring the nationalistic lines, the passenger is no longer called upon to see his carrier as an object of unremit­ting pride. The guilt has gone. That old mantra of being the nation’s ambassa­dor in the skies is so much nonsense and plays no part in a pas­senger decision. Today’s dic­tate is based on options, comforts, rewards, convenient connections and costs. And although Air In­dia comes to the international party it is more like a country cousin at a rich man’s wed­ding…awkward, bumbling and shabby.

The insider joke is that although technically Indian Airlines and Air In­dia supposedly merged they are still two separate entities. It is not funny. The merger was always unworkable and being band-aided by periodical reshuffles at the top as if cleaning the attic would somehow magically put the house in order. AI & IC, paradoxi­cally, still have separate Accounts and Reservations platforms. In most sta­tions in the Middle East & Gulf, the two airlines have separate GSAs (gen­eral sales agents), separate establish­ments and separate booking offices and airport staff.

Did somebody say ‘merger?’

What must be remembered is the two national carriers of India are competing against each other in the SE Asian and Gulf markets after IC was permitted to operate beyond the Indian shores. Personnel of the two carriers still view each other with dis­trust and suspicion what with the cor­porate cultures being totally differ­ent and the nutrient for the ongoing hostility.

The biggest bone in the gullet is the issue of human resources left in lim­bo especially with respect to inter– service seniorities of the combined personnel—at the senior levels per­colating to the lower levels. They have been decaying for years. And be­cause of the disparate speed of promo­tions and varying grades, officers in IC have risen much faster than those in AI. Most senior posts are occupied by IC personnel resulting in major heart burn in the Maharaja’s court.

The biggest challenge still remains managing the disparate workforce. There exists a deep-seated distrust and suspicion of each other’s actions and motives. Integration of the personnel has been effected up to a certain lev­el, and that too has created resentment and a feeling of being cheated in Air India.

Salary scales and policies with ref­erence to payment of allowances and PLI also differ. No real effort has been made to resolve these issues; it ap­pears that the management hopes that natural attrition will take care of the problems. The one decision the man­darins make is to make no decision.

Attempts at cutting costs by reduc­ing salaries or allowances have not succeeded as was evidenced in the last call for action given by the IC pi­lots’ body when it is reported that at the PMO’s intervention the CMD had to retract from his decision to declare a lockout.

The three pillars of modern aviation management are recognised as effi­cient staffing, financial independence and putting in place a merit system. Air India has the highest staff per air­craft ratio in the world teetering some­where at over 800 as compared to a global average of 350 plus. Financial independence is a non-starter. The merit system is dead.

Which means the fall has not been sudden. The airline has been chewed upon and spat out by political expe­diency, a line of ignorant bureaucrat chief executives, a freeze on profes­sional inhouse promotions, lack of route planning, a suspension on the yield factor and an arbitrary inva­sion of its commercial dictate. Let me elaborate.

Whether it is offering expat Indian children free rides home for excel­lence in studies or sponsoring Indian cultural activities and festivals Air In­dia is a sort of friendly under-the-gun inductee who gets it severely in the neck if it does not respond in accepted fashion to crises of all kinds including freeloaders with contacts. No coun­try’s citizens criticise its airline with the zeal of Indians on the Maharaja and yet, are wont to exploit it in great measure, often blinding themselves to the non-profit, non-professional com­mitments forced upon the airline.

While the management fights a sort of Custer like battle to keep political in­terference at bay from the spreading Indian diaspora and its demands, Air India’s hierarchy has two jobs; doing what it is paid to do and responding to the biddings of passing bureaucrats and politicians and expat VIPs whose desires can be equally exhausting.

So whether it is agreeing to transport the bodies of dead expats for free or explaining why fares to the southern cities cannot be reduced to forking out freebies for India’s secular festival en­tertainments, fairs and exhibitions, flying MPs on jaunts and inaugurals or ‘factfinding’ sprees, blocking three Jumbo widebodies for a VIP flight and thirty-odd other such ridiculous com­mands, Air India’s social role com­petes directly with its professional one. And wins. Check the unpaid bills of our leaders and their delegations.

With the chairman appointed by the government, freedom is just another word in the corridors of Air India.

In brief, political interference is best marked by the fact that the ministry’s out-offices are often surrogate reserva­tion centres for upgrades for so called VIPs, last-minute bookings, misuse of power in bringing about the complete destruction of the managing director’s authority when he is summoned daily like a lower division clerk. In a 24-seat configuration in First Class, for exam­ple, as many as 15 people could be up­grades, often bureaucrats of no partic­ular consequence.

Indeed, any corporation giving so much away would have been perma­nently in the red. So, why blame Air India? Unloved from both within and without, the Maharaja is on life sup­port...and sinking.

As the future passenger becomes more demanding and rather unforgiv­ing of anything that falls short of good service, the pressure will increase ex­ponentially. Politicians are already distancing themselves from the immi­nent collapse. All too often the political pressures placed on airlines are unre­alistic and have contributed to the air­line’s derailment from its singular pur­pose…to be commercially viable.

New airlines are coming into the fray and using their fifth and sixth freedoms to advantage. Air India’s bilateral agreements have some­times been to disadvantage often defying logic like giving away prime routes to foreign airlines, and the shift from demand to supply will now dra­matically necessitate some new mea­sures truly capsuled in just two words: Operational independence.

Besides, who will buy a loss-making behemoth? Unless the future own­ers of the Nariman Point AI building are those that have already benefited so profoundly from a weakened and floundering AI, stolen her routes, eat­en up her map, swallowed her profits and now conspire insidiously to carve the white elephant’s tusks and make a grand killing. Get it for cheap. Just dress it all up like it was a mercy mis­sion rather than grand conspiracy.

Happily ever after…you jest! Till then, let’s get through today.

Copyright @ GovernanceNow

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