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Air India Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner line number 35 test registered N1015 (later became VT-ANH) at the India Aviation show, Hyderabad March 2012. Photo copyright Devesh Agarwal.
Air India Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner line number 35 test registered N1015 (later became VT-ANH) at the India Aviation show, Hyderabad March 2012. Photo copyright Devesh Agarwal.

787 Dreamliners alone cannot save an inefficient Air India

Recent media reports blare the headline

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the latest acquisition of Air India, is likely to shore up the fortune of India’s national carrier.

This is backed by the many advertisements portraying some of the top Indian CEOs, giving big thumbs up after travelling in the next generation flying machine of India’s national carrier.

Various media reports quote the Indian civil aviation minister Ajit Singh, on the planned expansion of Air India’s network using the 787 Dreamliners. In a press release by the Indian Government, the minister spells out progress on the Dreamliner battery modification

The Minister for Civil Aviation , Shri Ajit Singh has said that out of six Dreamliners, two Dreamliners have already been modified for commercial operations and all 6 planes will be ready for operation by the end of this month.

Singh goes on to reveal a few financial performance parameters of the airline. In typical government fashion, the information reveals a small part of the story while concealing the essential. Reported is the increase in yield (revenue per passenger-kilometre) but hidden is crucial information like cost per passenger-kilometre, since revenue minus cost reveals the true performance of the airline, which the government will never report to the tax-payer whose money is being used to fund the airline.

Statistics aside, the main question here is: Why is the Indian minister for civil aviation making operational announcements about the airline? Globally it is the top management of the airline performing this task. Is Singh also assuming the duties of the Chairman and Managing Director of the Air India? Why is Ajit Singh also doing Rohit Nandan’s job? Should Singh not be concerned more about the abysmal performance of the DGCA in the sphere of safety regulation and the impending audit by ICAO?

Singh should let Nandan do his job, while he focusses on building a strong policy and robust regulatory structure for the benefit of the entire Indian aviation sector, and not just individual airlines.

These actions exemplify the daily and deep interference by the political and administrative class in the operations of ‘India’s National Carrier’, and how the airline’s leadership, which is beholden to the political and bureaucratic establishment for their jobs, are side-lined.

As a result the airline leadership is rendered powerless, and relieved from any ownership of performance, and by extension absolved of responsibility for results.

In my humble opinion, this is akin to a criminal abandonment of one’s duties and responsibilities.

Air India is losing thousands of crores each year and has racked up debts exceeding a mind blowing 53,400 crores ($8.9 billion) till date; and, and no one is held accountable!!!

Recently Air India was given a mammoth Rs. 30,000 crore bailout or Rs. one crore for each of its 30,000 employees in an over-bloated workforce. In comparison India’s health department budget for last year was Rs. 28,000 crore. Surely India does not need a ‘national airline’ more than the health of its citizens.

The politicians appear to be the driving force of this “feel happy” message on the 787 to deflect from some horrid truths. The Indian public is being kept blissfully unaware, much of the airline’s modern Boeing 777 fleet remains grounded due to a lack of spare parts; shocking considering most of the bailout money has already been spent. Read related story.

In another example of political interference killing the airline, in 2006, Air India was forced to buy the special purpose ultra-long range Boeing 777-200LR, to fulfil the pipe-dreams of non-stop Indian USA flights, of then civil aviation administration led by Praful Patel. Even as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) questioned the purchase of the 777LR’s itself, the configuration of aircraft shows the wasteful nature of “planning” at the airline.

Air India’s 777-200LRs are configured with a pathetic 238 seats in 8/35/195 first, business, and economy class. In comparison, global airlines offer many more economy class seats, the type of passengers Air India most commonly flies. Emirates offers 10.7% more seats, Air Canada 17% more, even Qatar Airways, rated one of the most luxurious economy class in the world, offers 10.6% more economy class seats.

The airline has been trying to sell these LRs since 2009, but this is a special use aircraft with very few airlines as takers; and within this limited market, no airline in its right mind will buy such an uneconomically configured aircraft with so few seats. The advice of many an aviation expert for Air India to re-configure its LRs and increase seats, have fallen of deaf ears.

The airline is forced to fly this uneconomic configuration, and the political spin machine generates stories that the 777 is not a commercially viable aircraft. The sales performance of the 777 speaks for itself. The 777 is one of the most successful aircraft in history with over 1,400 orders and 1,105 deliveries till date. The new Boeing 777X project is expected to replace the venerable 747 Jumbo Jet in the next decade. The two largest 777 operators in the world are Emirates and Singapore Airlines, essentially India’s neighbours.

If blowing up precious tax-payer rupees and not repairing, improving and deploying, the existing fleet is a criminal waste, what would you call the misinformation and misdirection?

Another quote by the minister that needs to be placed in perspective

“The Boeing 787 has the optimal size and range to allow Air India to not only operate its current routes more profitably, but also to open up new markets giving Air India a true first mover advantage,”

Where were these grand plans in July 2012 Mr. Minister?

Qatar Airways had made a lot of publicity in London that they would be the first carrier to operate the Dreamliner in to the prestigious city. Their deliveries were additionally delayed. Air India, which constantly complains of competition from the gulf carriers, received its Dreamliners months ahead of Qatar Airways, and could have destroyed the million dollar campaign of Qatar by operating the 787 to London, its largest international destination. The lack of a logical answer as to why Air India chose not to, is so compelling, one is forced to ask, is this a result of “lobbying” or some quid-pro-quo?

Instead of obtaining first mover advantage at one of the world’s most premium destinations, Air India operated the Dreamliner, on routes like Dubai, which is filled with low yielding low cost labour traffic. Instead of London, its largest international destination, Air India operated 787s to Frankfurt, where it constantly loses to global network behemoths like Lufthansa. When I asked why, there was no logical answer, but sources in the airline told me, the airline was just ordered to fly the Frankfurt route, at the behest of “someone in power”.

Air India continues to remain a wife with 1,000 husbands – interfered with, used and abused, by all of its stakeholders, with the exception of the tax-payer whose money is being burnt like the fuel in jet engines.

The 787 Dreamliner is a good and fuel efficient aircraft that will benefit Air India, if used properly; but any person with a modicum of common sense will realise just even this next generation fuel efficient aircraft alone cannot save an inefficiently and negligently run airline.

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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