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Privatised Air India has its work cut out

Some of Air India’s new recruits both in the air and on the ground are lacking in training, discipline and efficiency.

Privatised Air India has its work cut out

LAPSES: Air India is on the radar of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation for the wrong reasons. PTI

Abhijit Bhattacharyya

Life Member, Aeronautical Society Of India

THERE was virtually no opposition when ‘state carrier’ Air India went back to a private corporate behemoth, the Tata Group, in October 2021 after 68 years. Founded as a private carrier by JRD Tata in 1932, Air India was nationalised by the government in 1953. Reportedly, after paying upfront Rs 18,000 crore to the state exchequer to take possession of the sarkari carrier, Mumbai-headquartered Tata Group’s Air India today has under its belt Vistara, Air Asia, Air India Express and Air India SATS Airport Services Private Limited. Perhaps it goes to the Tatas’ credit that their Air India acquisition wasn’t objected to, owing largely to the track record and public image of JRD Tata and his successor, Ratan Tata. When it comes to corporate social responsibility, the Tatas have done relatively better than many other private companies of India.

With the start of the ‘aviation era’ in 1991, when India allowed private players to enter and compete for a piece of the pie in the service industry, it was the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo which prioritised civil aviation in order to improve air connectivity, both internal and external. All of a sudden, the two sarkari carriers — the domestic sector’s Indian Airlines and the international route operator Air India — felt the heat as their monopoly in the sky came under serious challenge with the rise of inexperienced private companies run by profit-seeking merchants.

Unsurprisingly, the initial thrust of some of these new players was to weaken the operational control of government-owned airlines and thoroughly discredit public sector companies rather than get into the actual business of providing quality services to the passengers. The new private air operators leased Boeing, Airbus and former Soviet aircraft at throwaway prices from various sources; these were second-hand or used planes which gave high-decibel publicity to their enterprises but were marked by low-level maintenance of machines and even lower confidence of consumers in the air and at the airports. As none of these new ‘capitalists’ had deep pockets or self-generated ‘seed money’ to go for new aircraft from Western manufacturers, it was utter chaos in the first decade of the ‘opened up’ Indian aviation sector as novice private entrepreneurs targeted Air India and Indian Airlines pilots and non-flying personnel and tried to lure them with better remuneration on attractive terms.

The inevitable happened in no time as government airlines’ pilots resorted to ‘go slow’ tactics and also an indefinite strike seeking higher financial benefits. It certainly wasn’t the best of times for state-owned air carriers in the domestic and international sectors. At least four major accidents between 1991 and 1993 resulted in a huge loss of credibility; the criticism focused on state airlines’ lethargy, inefficiency and lack of professionalism.

Thus, the first post-liberalisation era crash occurred on August 16, 1991, when a Boeing-737 of the Indian Airlines operating on the Calcutta-Imphal-Dimapur (Flight 257) crashed during the Imphal descent, killing all aboard. Thereafter took place a bizarre crash in New Delhi amid zero visibility on January 9, 1993. A stressed Indian Airlines had fallen back upon Uzbek Airlines-leased Tupolev-154 (owing to an indefinite strike by its in-house pilots); it made a horrid ‘upside down’ landing, even as all on board had a miraculous escape. Clearly, liberalisation began with a ‘bang’ for Indian aviation in the heart of the nation’s capital. Making matters worse, Flight IC-491 (Boeing-737) made a mess of its take-off run on April 26, 1993, and rolled over the ground after colliding with a stationary truck outside the Aurangabad airport runway’s periphery. More than half aboard perished. On November 15 that year, Airbus-300 (Flight IC-440) crashed near Tirupati due to an engine flameout. Fortuitously, all 250 on board survived.

The reputation, credibility and professionalism of state-owned air carriers were badly hit and the clamour became louder for privatisation of Air India and Indian Airlines. In the midst of this chaos, a few private fortune-seekers succeeded in ‘sabotaging’ state carriers to snatch frequency (daily flight schedule) and capacity (number of passenger per aircraft); lucrative routes were taken away from both state carriers. After the merger of Air India and Indian Airlines in 2007, however, it was not a question of how, but when, the merged mega state carriers would be in private hands as one entity.

Thus, the inevitable happened in October 2021. Two years have gone by. How’s Air India doing? Better than before or worse? Since seeing is believing, the private carrier has miles to go. The government’s Air India was as good as today’s private one. State-owned Air India was undermined by some of the bureaucrats who headed it.

Today’s Air India is on the radar of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for all the wrong reasons. One must say that the DGCA is rightly cracking the whip over avoidable failures of the vaunted carrier. Earlier this month, the directorate imposed a fine of Rs 10 lakh on Air India over non-compliance of compensation rules after carrying out an inspection at Delhi, Kochi and Bengaluru airports. The lapses pertained to “not providing hotel accommodation for passengers affected by delayed flights, non-training of some of their ground personnel as per the stipulations and non-payment of compensation to international business-class passengers who were made to travel on unserviceable seats.” In January, the DGCA had imposed a fine of Rs 30 lakh on Air India and a penalty of Rs 3 lakh on the airline’s director of in-flight services in connection with an on-board urination incident involving an unruly passenger. The directorate had also suspended the pilot-in-command for three months.

Indeed, some of Air India’s new recruits both in the air and on the ground are lacking in training, discipline and efficiency. The private carrier clearly has its work cut out.

#Air India

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