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How do we solve a problem like Air India?

On the morning of May 5th an Airbus A321 operating Air India flight AI-179 with a seating capacity of 172 passengers was accidentally pushed back from the gate at Mumbai airport while the aero bridge was still connected to the aircraft. The door was badly damaged, and the passengers had to be transferred to another aircraft. In the ensuing accident investigation the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) found that there three extra passengers (one lady and two children), apparently the family of one the pilots, were accommodated in the cockpit jump seat and the cabin crew folding seats in violation of DGCA rules. These additional passengers were issued manual boarding passes and shown as infants as the computerised system could not be generated since the flight was completely booked. Eight staffers including the pilots have been de-rostered pending investigations.

This incident is just one but highly reflective of the operational malaise killing Air India, and reminds one of the famous song from the Sound of Music – “how do we solve a problem like Maria?”

With great anticipation the names of India’s business luminaries like Ratan Tata, Narayana Murthy, S. Ramadorai, and Sam Pitroda have been proposed as possible members of the Air India advisory board, all tycoons of global repute which Air India will be fortunate to have. However, can this advisory board most of whom are not conversant with the aviation industry and its inherent problems, find a solution? that too in 30 days?

Air India first and foremost, needs a professional Chief Operating Officer with years of airline experience and a master of global best practices to execute the corrective actions needed to repair the malaise affecting the airline. A name that I propose is Bhaskar Pant formerly of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, now with Kingfisher Airlines.

While the COO and advisory board will most likely receive the required support of the Chairman and Managing Director Mr. Arvind Jadhav, a man with a proven track record of dynamic and decisive action who does not mince words, the bureaucratic and political masters are a different kettle of fish.

Three key announcements by the government in the last few days give great cause for concern on whether it is truly committed to the removing the political meddling and administrative sycophancy that has reduced the Maharaja to a pauper.

  1. No disinvestment of Air India. Thus implying the continued treatment of Air India as a personal fiefdom and a vehicle to deliver patronage to their favoured few and one of the key reasons for bringing Air India to its current precarious state.
  2. Announcing no sacking of employees, at the same time advising the airline to “introspect”. This is exactly the political double-speak, pandering to vote banks, and destructive meddling that has every one in India exasperated. With over 210 employees per aircraft, double the global standard, job cuts are a must.
  3. Aircraft procurement to continue. Despite Air India announcing it had no money to finance new aircraft purchases, officials at the civil aviation ministry confirmed a $1 billion deal with JP Morgan to finance the continuing procurement of new Boeing aircraft by Air India. This massive aircraft procurement has driven Air India in to an unsustainable wall of debt, if nothing else a slow down in procurement speed, given the downturn in aviation needs a strong consideration.

Air India may want to get the brightest minds on its board and the most competent of executors in operations, but till the government does not stop its meddling and interference in the airline, it is doubtful they will be able to get the right people who can guide and perform the rescue needed to solve the problem called Air India.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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