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Last Updated Thursday August 16 2018 12:14 PM IST

Siege of Maharaja: Why India must rally behind Air India

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The siege of the Maharaja: Why India must rally behind Air India Air India’s downfall is largely the result of government policies. The blame has to be shared by the civil aviation department and the Air India board and a section of employees.

The Maharaja is under threat. India’s national carrier Air India is up for sale and no one is interested!

Union civil aviation secretary R N Choubey has said that the government would not divest Air India if the bidding was inadequate. In other words, the government was just waiting for the right bid to wash its hands off the carrier.

The plan is to initiate the sale process in August and finish it by December. On offer is 76 percent of Air India and 50 percent of the Air India-SATS (Singapore Airport Terminal Service) joint venture.

Leading carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Etihad Airways and Singapore Airlines as well as private equity Warburg Pincus had evinced interest in the divestment but they can’t agree on a suitable price.

India decided to privatise the national carrier on June 28, 2017. How did the pride of the nation ended up in such a plight? When will our rulers wake up to the fact that Air India is a priceless national asset?

Like Lufthansa for Germany and British Airways for Britain, national carriers are symbols of national pride the world over. Qatar Airways and Air China are the flag-bearers of their countries.

How come nobody wants Air India? Is India incapable of running an airline despite all its claims to be an emerging economic powerhouse?

Flight of fancy

Air India’s downfall is largely the result of government policies. The blame has to be shared by the civil aviation department and the Air India board and a section of employees. They strove hard to paint Air India as an unprofessional service and the people just bought the argument.

Air India’s current plight does not reflect its illustrious history. The company benefited from the leadership of the visionary J R D Tata in its teething years. The Tata group started the aviation company on July 29, 1946. Tata Service sold its majority stake in the company to the government in 1953 but J R D Tata continued as chairman until 1977.

Air India and Indian Airlines ruled the air-like kings until the skies were opened up for private competitors in the 1990s. The companies merged in 2007.

Air India was the first airline in Asia to own a jet. The carrier bought a Boeing 707-420 on February 21, 1960 and flew its maiden trip to New York on May 14.

Ruling the skies

Air India is still an excellent air carrier. As of March, Air India’s fleet included 118 aircraft ready to serve various routes. This figure excludes aircraft available with associated entities such as Air India Express and Alliance.

Air India pilots has category-3 certification. They are trained to fly and land in any adverse weather condition. Not many private airlines can boast of pilots skilled in the instrument landing system. Air India’s ground handling system is excellent too. Air India-SATS stands out in any crowd.

Air India’s budget airline Air India Express has been selected as one of the three best value airlines in the world. Still, the government is looking for a chance to sell off the airline with the face of the beloved Maharaja.

Air India’s hour glory came during the Gulf war of 1990, when its evacuation runs earned it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Air India conducted 488 sorties to evacuate 1.11 lakh Indians stranded in Amman in Jordan between August 31 and October 11. Most of the passengers who reached Mumbai safely were from Kerala.

Air India became the only national carrier to evacuate so many people stranded by a war.

Losing monopoly

Air India’s dream run came to an end with the globalisation of early 90s. India’s air space was suddenly filled with private airlines and global giants. They vied with each other to offer the best-in-class service.

Air India’s response to the changing industry tells a lot about its incapable management. Nobody cared to spruce up the national carrier to make it fit for the rising competition. Even the unimaginative management could not ground Air India. It still commanded much brand loyalty.

Air India’s slide could only be explained as part of an international conspiracy. The unlimited potential in the opening skies of India was not lost on the foreign airline companies and the governments in those countries. They lured away Indian passengers by offering more facilities and launching a smear campaign against Air India.

Their attempts got a boost when Air India pilots and other staff went on frequent strikes. The national carrier further antagonised it customers by cutting down on the limit of luggage one could carry. Services were delayed or cancelled. And it did nothing to counter a campaign that its fleet was ageing.

Blow by blow

Private airlines and international carriers poached Air India pilots and other staff en masse. Air India miserably failed to project its image as the country’s foremost carrier.

The Indian government had no qualms in allotting more seats to foreign carriers in national routes. This was particularly evident since 2010.

The decision to allot foreign carriers from the Gulf region 75,000 seats each came as a lasting blow on Air India. The seats were taken at the expense of the national carrier.

The authorities claim that Air India is making loses. No loss is big enough for a carrier the size of Air India. It could find funds to bridge the deficit just by selling some of its time slots in international and domestic airports. Air India possesses envied time slots in major hubs including New York, London, Paris, Tokyo and Jeddah. These are worth crores of rupees.

Air India has become the last resort for an average Indian passenger. He was rather forced to say this thanks to Air India management and employees and of course, the government. While people around the world view their national carrier with pride, Air India struggles to find passengers.

For a song

Now Indian authorities want to sell Air India somehow. Nobody seems to want it though, unless it is for a cheap bargain.

Indian rulers and Air India management can still try to salvage the carrier. There is no point in lamenting over lost opportunities.

Air India can still be transformed into a reliable carrier which flies on time and offers better facilities to its passengers. It could do with committed employees.

Read: Latest Business News | Centre rules out review of daily fuel pricing

The opinions expressed here do not reflect those of Malayala Manorama. Legal action under the IT Act will be taken against those making derogatory and obscene statements.

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