For the last nine days, Indian media and aggrieved passengers are tirelessly following the strike by Air India (AI) pilots. About 200 AI pilots have reported sick to retaliate against unpaid salaries and ensure that they test fly the newly purchased Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes!
Reports of stranded Air India passengers and their woes are making headlines every now and then. Many passengers are not only stranded, but have also not been offered flight transfers. As a result, most of these aggrieved Air India passengers are paying exorbitant flight tickets to ensure that their travel/business plans do not go awry!
Blame it on the striking pilots, did you say? Well, a surprise statement from Indian Pilots Guild (IPG) president stating that “the government should at least begin preliminary talks. We are ready for talks but they should formally invite us for talks to resolve the issue,” leaves many confused about who is to blame! Over the last nine days, a Delhi high court order declaring the pilot strike illegal, a promise to hear out the grieving pilots unconditionally, and a “last chance” warning; have had zero impact on the pilots! Consequently, in the last nine days, the airline has incurred a 150 crore debt, that is denting Indian aviation’s reputation locally and globally.
Most of Air India’s cancelled flights are international and about 20 out of 50 of these flights have been affected. Before we get into the details, here is a quick overview about Air India.
Flash back: JRD Tata founded Tata airlines in 1934, India’s first leap into the sky. It was in 1946 that it became a public limited company and was named Air India. It grew rapidly and became a symbol of India’s pride and glamour until tragedy struck. Yes, now Air India (fondly called maharaja) is silently breathing its last sigh. Its market share has plummeted from 60 per cent (when India’s aviation sector opened to private competition) to just about 17 per cent now. Air India has managed to steadily lose out on its passenger and cargo traffic over the years. A systematic failure of the airline!
This is the worst in its 79-year history. So how did the airline that reaped profits until 2005, manage to go on ventilator support sponsored by the tax payers money? Well, all this mess started with one wrong move of the government!
The government in 2007 decided to merge Indian Airlines (IA) with Air India (AI). The whole idea behind a merger is to achieve economies of scale, increase revenues, and cut expenses.
In this case, the merger did the opposite! Debts and losses soared, employees of AI and IA clashed over pay scale differences, losses mounted, union strikes increased, and the erstwhile pride is now unimaginable! A clear case of a marriage gone wrong, don’t you think?
What’s more, the carrier is passing through turbulent weather. It’s not a nuclear secret anymore that the government managed airline is running in debts to the tune of 42,000 crores with financial losses amounting to nearly 8,000 crores for 2011-12! Further, you would be shocked to know that the Comptroller and Auditor General of India has blamed the decision of the aviation ministry to buy 68 new Boeing aircrafts priced at over 40,000 crores as one of the major causes of the debt troubles in Air India in 2005.
So now that the problem is out in the open, what needs to be done to resolve it is yet another puzzling question. De-merging the airlines would only induce more disorder and the government has denied privatizing AI. In return, the government has surprisingly fueled the sick Maharaja with a 30,000 crore revival package! Will the taxpayer’s money bring the Maharaja back on its toes?
So how can Air India really come out of this mess and start rebuilding its image and brand loyalty? A major restructuring of the top management with civil aviation experts, coupled with a sincere attempt to foster good employee relations may help in improving the financial situation. It will require a lot of effort to improve the dented image of AI among the helpless flying class who are at loss every time the airline faces a strike.
Please spare a moment to pray for the sick Maharaja ! Tell us what you think can be done to save it from crash landing. Share your comments below. You never know who’s listening!