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Destroying an airline

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

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STRANDED PASSENGERS AT the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on the third day of the Air India pilots' strike on April 29.-V.V. KRISHNAN

STRANDED PASSENGERS AT the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on the third day of the Air India pilots' strike on April 29.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The government must drag into the open those responsible for fattening themselves on Air India and show the people just what they have done.

AS this column is being written, the strike by Air India pilots has entered its ninth day with no resolution in sight. It is easy to say the crisis is a result of callous, selfish pilots, who earn lakhs of rupees a month, wanting even more, and who do not give a damn whether the passengers whom they fly and whose money gets them their lakhs are subjected to the terrible ordeal of missed appointments with doctors, missed examinations, missed jobs and events crucial to their lives. It is, in part, that, despite the hypocritical and unctuous declarations of Rishabh Kapur, one of the arch leaders of the striking pilots, that they are very sorry for the inconvenience caused to passengers, really sorry and that they apologise to them sincerely. But it is not the whole story.

The full story of how Air India, that mongrel body made up of the original Air India and Indian Airlines, works, and the monumentally stupid manner in which they were brought together, will need to be told by someone who knows the organisation very well. For the purposes of this essay one needs to note just a few points that are as inexplicable as they are foolish. One is the fact that the two airlines were merged before a clear policy on common pay scales and benefits was worked out and agreed on by all concerned. It is all very well to set up a committee to go into this matter, to use bureaucratese, under someone very eminent. The fact is that these issues are among the many crucial ones that needed to be sorted out before a full merger. It was not done.

Another is the manner in which the Ministry of Civil Aviation, headed by Praful Patel, rammed through a proposal to buy some 68 new aircraft at a mind-boggling figure that brought the new organisation financially to its knees. This was a follow-up to a grand exhortation by the Minister to both airlines they were separate then to think big. Indian Airlines did what it thought was thinking big and decided to buy some 28 aircraft and take another 18 on lease. But the Ministry swept that aside and ordered mark, ordered the airline to buy all of the planes.

The thinking big policy was enforced on Air India in a slightly different manner; the airline wanted a mix of Airbus and Boeing aircraft very sensible to anyone with a grain of common sense but were, again, ordered to buy only Boeing aircraft. There was some fig leaf of a reason given of a discount offered, but, as those who have negotiated such high-value deals know, such discounts are given by all vendors, not just one. But obviously cosying up to Boeing was a part of thinking big.

And then came the most astounding set of decisions, which, together, brought the new organisation, Air India, so near collapse. Sectors where the passenger load factor was as high as 84 per cent the routes to the Gulf were given to private airlines, both Indian and foreign, and Air India was ordered not to fly those routes. So where was the revenue to come from?

The pilots and other staff of Air India are not fools. They could smell the coffee like anyone else, and they knew this coffee stank. The result, as anyone who has managed people in big organisations will know, was demoralisation that manifested itself in cynicism, indifference, and, most importantly, in the pilots and other staff no longer identifying with the airline. They no longer, clearly, considered it a matter of pride that they flew with Air India or worked for it. Because they knew Air India had been transformed from being a viable, growing airline that could take on other airlines to an entity that was there to be milked dry, and then, perhaps, auctioned off.

There is another curious side to this sordid story: the enormous coverage given to the pilots' strike. By the figures put out by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in February, Air India (then still called National Aviation Company of India Limited, NACIL) had a market share of 17.1 per cent, taking domestic and international sectors together. In the domestic sector with which we are concerned here the share was just 14.9 per cent, according to some sources. So why all this fuss over an airline that has a tiny part of the airlines market? If there had been a strike in Jet Airways or Kingfisher Airlines, one would have understood the media frenzy. But for an airline that ranks with SpiceJet, GoAir and other such airlines? Just what makes it such a big story?

It would have been far more understandable if the media had concentrated on the siphoning off of money from Air India in the brazen manner in which it has been done. One would have understood if there was a demand that these dirty decisions be looked at and the dirt exposed: the buying of aircraft, the giving up of profitable routes, and all such deals. One would have understood if there was a demand that the government explain why the Ministry of Civil Aviation has the authority to order a professional company to take decisions that are purely professional. And the tired old argument of being answerable to Parliament will not wash. Air India is as answerable to Parliament as the Ministry is. In any event, should that Ministry ever be asked to explain anything, it would immediately point its finger at Air India. So Air India carries the can either way.

There was a lot of chest-thumping and threatening before the Ministry of Civil Aviation bent before the wind, as those who have a lot to hide are bound to do. Pilots were dismissed and suspended and dire consequences were predicted. The Minister made such contemptible remarks as Class 12 pass people earning lakhs of rupees and having the temerity to ask for more. Does he not know what the education levels of some of his Cabinet colleagues are and how much they earn? If Air India is indeed to be India's national carrier, which it certainly is not today, the government must grit its teeth and drag into the open those responsible for fattening on this wretched airline and show the people just what they have done. It will not do to take the coward's way out and wait for the Supreme Court to order such an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation. That would only underscore the pettiness of this government.

The Prime Minister must be a harried man, with major scandals in virtually every Ministry being exposed. But he needs to be resolute and have this can of worms opened and shown to us to see, and he must bring those involved to book and ensure that they are punished.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 03, 2011.)

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