The last time I flew Air India was before the pandemic to Shanghai from Delhi and return. The reason to fly Air India was obvious. There were no direct flights from Mumbai to Shanghai (Yes, surprise of surprise, after Jet Airways stopped flying this sector) and to save time on transit, it made better sense to fly to Delhi and take the direct flight to Shanghai. For most of us, the reason to opt for Air India for international flights, particularly when travelling for business/work would be this. In the absence of a better option and not necessarily being the first choice.
The other set of non-business travelers from India (Students, Senior Citizens, vacationers) opt for Air India for cheaper fares or the extra baggage allowance which comes handy. In the past one or two decades, rarely I have seen or heard anyone opting to fly Air India for its superior service or for the flying experience. And herein lies the sad and sordid tale of Air India as a National carrier of India. If this is the situation with Indians, one can imagine where Air India would stack up in the minds of foreigners.
The situation was not so bad all along for Air India. During my MBA days, way back in 1990, we did a survey of air travelers in Mumbai as part of a marketing project. International travel was not common those days as it is now. I vividly remember that Air India fared very well in terms of perception and I guess those were the heady days for the Maharaja. But in the subsequent years as International air travel picked up and when the market was actually exploding in India post liberalisation, Air India was imploding.
The reasons for the rot in Air India have been chronicled well in Jitender Bhargava’s (Former Executive Director of Air India) book – The Descent of Air India. In a deadly cocktail of an indifferent and unaccountable Top management, political interference and string pulling and a demotivated and tired staff, there was only one direction the airline was heading – southwards. Of course, he argues that the descent was accelerated by ill-timed and ill-advised decisions including purchase of new fleet at uncompetitive prices and signing of non-profitable bilateral agreements during the UPA regime. Irrespective of the political regime, it is a known fact that PSUs like Air India and ITDC were treated like personal fiefdoms by both the executive and the bureaucracy to further their own personal interests.
Now and then, different governments have tried to revive Air India by blowing money on marketing campaigns and taking advantage of exclusive route agreements. The Air India marketing campaigns have always been top notch. But as I have said before, the best marketing campaigns cannot save a floundering product. Some of the attractive routes, Delhi-San Francisco for example, are profitable and well sought after by Indians but such far and few successes in between cannot sustain a full airline.
The present sad state of affairs at Air India, the losses it has accumulated, the capital it guzzles on a monthly basis, the struggles of the staff in getting salaries on time etc. have been documented well overall and hence not repeating those points here. Enough to say that if there was any company which the Government of India should disinvest and exit in a hurry, it was Air India. So after a few attempts in that direction right from the first time under the Vajpayee’s regime to Modi’s current run, finally the disinvestment of Air India is a reality.
Air India is Ghar Wapsi for the Tatas. The story of how Tata Airlines became Air India by a forced nationalisation is also well documented. It will be interesting to observe how the Tatas embrace Air India and more importantly turn it around quickly. For Ratan Tata, there is an emotional connect with Air India. But then, we know how just having emotional connect doesn’t help in business. It calls for a Himalayan effort to start from scratch, change the culture, compete and build a world class airline. Tatas of course is not new to the airline business. They have been running Vistara in a joint venture with Singapore Airlines for some time now. Tatas also have investments going in Air Asia – a regional airline. But then, taking over a fledgling Airline like Air India and turning it around is another cup of Tetley tea!
Airline business is one business which is CAPEX intensive and OPEX intensive at the same time. There are businesses which are highly CAPEX intensive but once done, do not incur high operational costs (Like the mobile telephony business). There are businesses that don’t require high CAPEX investments but need working capital and operational efficiencies to remain afloat and profitable (Like trading businesses). Airline business is one which demands very high CAPEX investments (Planes, slots, infrastructure etc…), high operational costs on a daily basis (fuel, high salaries, marketing etc.) and require operational efficiencies of the highest order in order to be profitable. The moving parts are so many that with one wrong move, the business can get into a crisis mode. Ask Vijay Mallya or Naresh Goyal. This is one of the reasons why we have seen so many airlines folding up in India itself ever since the skies were opened up to private players.
In Airline parlance, there are this headwinds and tailwinds. Tailwinds propel the flights and headwinds have the opposite effect. In he history of Air India as a business though, it has seen only headwinds.
I am certain that Tatas would have obviously done their homework that too extensively, before bidding for Air India. Now that they have won, they have their task cut out. There are many things going for them, on top being the good will of Indians in general towards Tatas. That’s why we didn’t see much of opposition to the announcement of Air India being sold to the Tatas. With “revenge travel” post Covid expected to take off, the timing is just right for Tatas to soar into the Indian skies with Air India N.0! I am personally looking forward to the day when I would opt for Tata-Air India as my first and only choice when I fly abroad. For now, it’s Tata, Air India from GOI and as Amul says, a “Good Buy for Tata”!
Post Script: Interestingly, the Air India Staff Union expressed its happiness over Tatas winning the Air India bid! When was the last time a staff union was happy over privatisation in India? And when was the last time we saw no noise from the Left over privatisation? Acche Din are here, guys!