The Air India Story: Has the Maharaja Become a Pauper?
Daijiworld Media Network
Jun 27: Is 50 days too small a period to kill the ‘Maharaja’? This question is necessitated considering that the pilot’s strike of Air India is nearing 50 days. There are enough indications that the mischievous Maharaja, known worldwide for his grace, dignity, naughtiness and symbol of high living in India, is on the death bed gasping for last minute oxygen, which is not forthcoming. So who is responsible for the sorry state of affairs of this ‘Maharaja’ whose name is synonymous with Air India, the country’s national carrier? Apart from ministers and bureaucrats who have contributed for the present mess in the airlines it is a pity that the striking pilots themselves are hitting the last nail in the coffin of the airlines and hastening its death, hurting their own cause in the process.
From being reported sick on May 7, 2012, it is nearing 50 days since Air India pilots have stuck to their guns refusing to report back as they feel their health (pun intended) does not permit them to report back for duty. Since the government has adopted an equally belligerent attitude in response to the aggressive posture adopted by striking pilots, the pilots have now decided to go on hunger strike pressing for their demands. It may be recalled that despite the high court terming their strike as illegal, the pilots have not shown any repentance for the inconvenience caused to the travelers by their reporting sick all of a sudden and then grounding the flights for so many days. The travel plans of thousands of enthusiastic people were thrown into disarray just because of the internal tussle between the pilots of the merged Air India and Indian Airlines. Not only that their strike has caused a revenue loss of over 750 crores the long term revenue loss of their strike will be known and felt only in due course.
The taxpayer of this country, who has repeatedly witnessed the pilots hurting the general public with their ill-conceived strikes and causing further loss to the beleaguered airlines which is reeling under severe loss, must be wondering who is going to bear the additional financial burden caused by the fiasco. Their concern is genuine considering that the government once again came forward to bail out the embattled airline with a financial package of whopping Rs 30,000 crores which it is planning to infuse into the national airlines in phases till 2021.
There were many who talked about the prudence of infusing more money into an airlines which is in deep debt, is almost like a ‘black hole’ swallowing everything that comes anywhere near it. It is said that in the last four years alone Air India has accumulated losses of over Rs. 20,000 crores and its outstanding loans stand at a staggering Rs. 67,500 crores. Though the government has come out with a bailout package the pilots are continuing with their strike with utmost disregard for the tax payer’s money causing further loss.
Since the taxpayers money is involved the government as well the striking pilots should answer the taxpayer on how best their tax money will be used for reviving the airline. Will it be like throwing the taxpayers money into the drains considering that even after incusing such huge funds it is enough to enable even a temporary revival for the national airlines? Nearly 19,000 crores from this bail out package will go towards equity for already guaranteed aircraft loan, leaving very little amount for improving the financial condition of the airlines.
With its credibility taken a severe beating Air India has got nothing to perch on to anything for its survival. Passengers are almost fed up with its oft-repeated strikes and would opt for a private airlines rather than Air India, if given a chance. The warning bell is loud and clear as Air India’s market share has come down to abysmally low of 17% from that of almost 60% during its hay days. Under such circumstances, the present crisis arising out of the strike would push the airlines towards a moribund state shrinking it further into a deep morass.
The current logjam between the government and the striking pilots of the airline signify the airline is put on a ventilator and any further infusion oxygen in terms of money to bring it back would be like doing a disservice to the taxpayer of this country. With an average daily loss of 15 to 20 crores, that too at the peak of the travel period, Air India has lost the sympathy and confidence of the passengers, who are like a lifeline to any airline. Air India used to fly over 14,000 passengers abroad every day, which comes to about 35% of all passengers it carries. Having learnt a bitter lesson more than once with travel plans going awry due to sudden strike, these passengers would now choose other airlines rather than sticking on to Air India. The stalemate also has come as a big boost for private airlines which are making hay when the sun shines. The present stalemate has given credence to the fact that the current stalemate is nothing but a ploy of a top minister to hand over on a platter airline routes to private players. With the pilots not in a mood to call off the strike are hastening this process of making way for the private operators.
Under this backdrop one may be tempted to ask why the pilots going on strike are harming their own cause. Though the current fuss is mainly over promotion and training of Air India and Indian Airlines pilots on the new Boeing 787, the root cause of it lie in the forced merger (unsuccessful) or the badly managed merger of Air India and Indian Airlines and Air India in 2007 carried out by the then Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patil. The merger resulted in the formation of National Airline Company and it was thought a right step in the right direction of consolidating the airline industry. In February 2011, Air India and Indian Airlines merged along with their subsidiaries to form Air India Limited.
The amalgamation was said to be a step by the government to treat employees of two airlines on party considering them to be two equal arms of the national aviation company. It turned out to be ill-conceived move because the two wings of the national carrier did not actually merge but remained separate just like water and stone despite best efforts to ‘marry’ them and forcing them to live under one roof. The brewing discontent between these wings has come out in the open and the cantankerous attitude of the pilots has only added to the existing woes of the airlines.
It is indeed pitiable to see the present condition of our national carrier whose very existence evoked a sense of pride and nationalism since the heady days of independence. The government had taken over Tata Airlines found by J RD Tata in 1932 which subsequently became Air India in 1946. In the same year Air India adopted the mischievous, graceful and friendly ‘Maharaja” as its mascot. Air India’s then commercial director Bobby Kooka and Umesh Rao belonging to advertising agency J Walter Thompson Ltd (now HTA) had created the maharaja and even now Air India is known by this Maharaja to many. The Maharaja still remains the mascot of Air India though the new airline adopted a new logo of a red coloured flying swan with the “Konark Chakra’ in orange placed inside it.
Now the ‘Maharaja’ is in a moribund state. Bureaucrats who were CMD’s of Air India like Raghu Menon, Sunil Arora, V Thulsidas, Aravind Jadhav and minister Praful Patel were the men who mishandled the airlines and enfeebled it. During Aravind Jadhav’s tenure who was CMD between 2009 and 2011 there were three strikes by pilots. A recent article by India Today has quoted aviation expert captain Mohan Ranganathan saying “he (Jadhav) was managing the obituary of the airline rather than running it”.
The CAG in its Performance Audit Report on Civil Aviation of India 2011-12 has also provided some shocking revelations on the role of ministers and bureaucrats in systematically killing the airlines with decisions that plunged the airlines into deep financial muddle. From bizarre administrative decisions of buying, buying large and expensive fleet of aircraft when Air India’s market share was on the decline, handing over profitable routes to private airlines, corruption, haughtiness, abuse of office and misuse of office from 2004 onwards by bureaucrats and ministers, are some of the reasons given by the CAG in its report indicting those who mishandled the airlines and gave it a slow death. CAG has questioned the Ministry’s rationale of buying Air Bus and long range aircraft for non-existent destination without considering their financial viability. Who will make them answerable for all the mumbling and fumbling and their role in making Air India what it is today?
The sad part is that these bureaucrats and ministers are not made accountable and answerable to the public for their mistakes and squalid decisions. It has left the government in a lurch not knowing how to handle the imbroglio and the white elephant Air India has come to become.
While the demands of the pilots might be genuine to some extent going on lightening strike and bleeding the company red makes them equally responsible for killing the institution that has given them their bread and butter.
Being responsible for putting the airline’s future in jeopardy, now the government and the Civil Aviation Ministry must not heed to the pressure tactics of the pilots because they have been given ample opportunities, which they have failed to respond to. The government is certainly in a dilemma and is unable to find an honorable escape route. The public is fed up of it and is saying enough is enough. Now it is shameful that the pilots are going ‘Anna’ way (fasting) to force the government to meet their demands.