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Sunday, June 2, 2019

Dil Mein India, Aasmaan Mein Air India

This article was published in Time of India op-ed on 6/6/2019

Air India, a brand that often fuels emotions and also nationalism is easily one of the most well-known global brands. And why not, with a network of over seventy domestic and forty international destinations, it is an airline with a reach.

Except for the last decade and a half or so, Air India was always regarded as a great airline. This national carrier of India was well known for its service to passengers, with the Maharajah logo being an apt icon. Sadly of late, its sheen faded because of the down slide the airline witnessed since the turn of the millenium, in its finances, market share and services.

Founded by the legendary JRD in 1932, Air India had for long been India's showcase to the world and with marginal hiccups, it continued to perform reasonably well till such time it and its sister domestic airline continued to fly separately. The beginning of the decline also timed itself with the governmental interference that this commercial enterprise in a highly competitive sector started facing in right earnest.

This has been the sad story of the public sector in India. Regularly cursed for inadequacy in performance, the public sector at large has invariably been the victim of the same very people who curse it in the first place. Excessive interference, a plethora of rules, processes & oversight and a pervasive environment of fear has dampened initiative and acumen for taking risks - the most crucial traits required for running businesses successfully.

The merger, pushed through without fully appreciating the chemistry of mergers and apparently to satiate the english word -  synergy, coupled with other decisions forced down the airline, initiated its downhill slide. The ban on recruitment ensured the absence of fresh blood and ideas and the stress on tendering procedures coupled with the over indulgence of vigilance set-ups that rarely differentiate between malafide and procedural mistakes, hastened the free fall.

For businesses, one loss making year is enough of a wake-up call to initiate corrective measures, yet at the national carrier, the debt was allowed to pile up over the years. A turn-around plan that subsequently emerged was by no stretch of imagination as such for it conveniently avoided addressing issues relating to leadership, human resource, processes, delegation and organizational culture, and merely remained confined to equity injection to meet debt service requirements. The plan only helped a sinking ship to remain afloat, not ride on the waves.

Despite being more of a railroader than an aviator, it hurts to witness the descent of an airline that was an iconic one till almost the turn of the millennium. An organization that acquired one of the finest art collections and that in the yesteryears really cared for its men an aspect easily visible in the adequacy of built and acquired residential quarters, had to be a great one.

Yet along the way the organization did stray and piled up a mountain of debt. Simultaneously, neither its growth nor administrative processes kept pace with the changing requirements of the twenty first century. That despite the serious issues it faced and continues to face, the airline still retains its inner strengths - the tremendous reach and operational and technical excellence, indeed says a lot.

It is a harsh reality that governmental systems are ill suited for running commercial organizations in its fold, more so an airline business that is very high on competition, regulation and technology yet has very thin margins that too have a propensity to vanish with the slightest flutter in fuel prices.

For many of us Indians, the sight of an Air India aircraft stimulates a feeling of national pride. At airports beyond our shores it gives the feel that home is right there. The only airline with India in its name shall always evoke this feeling regardless of its ownership.