Air India: Turbulent theories

Written by Debabrata Das | Updated: Nov 10 2013, 16:25pm hrs
Air IndiaHe does this while painting himself as the lone voice of dissent in the airline.
Given the woeful condition of national carrier Air India, it has become somewhat fashionable to jump onto the bandwagon and criticise certain aspects of the airline. Unionism, government interference, corrupt leadership, etc, are things flyersaffected by a notorious Air India strikehave blamed for the pathetic state of the airline some time in their lives. Talking about the book, The Descent of Air India, former Air India deputy managing director Inder Sethi says, The revelations in this book are not surprising when read and seen in the context of what is happening elsewhere in the country.

Sethi may have meant it as a compliment, but what is true is that the reasons listed by former Air India executive director Jitender Bhargava in his 271-page book on the current state of Air India are hardly great revelations. Bhargavas book is definitely not a seminal work of investigative writing on Air India. After all, the fact that the disruptive nature of the unions and the inability of the management to fight the unions led to the declining service standards is well known.

Despite this, Bhargava spends the first half of the book taking potshots at the unions and pointing fingers at the weak management. He does this while painting himself as the lone voice of dissent in the airline. Though he does warn readers in the first chapter that the book isnt meant for self-gratification, he doesnt, unfortunately, stay true to his words.

What is even more disappointing is that Bhargava hasnt provided any practical solutions to any of the problems faced by the airline during his time there. For example, he frequently blames the Indian Pilots Guild for its disruptive attitude in the 1990s, but at that time, India barely had one airline and a woeful shortage of pilots. So, even if the management had been strong-willed and locked out the agitating pilots, what was the option How many foreign pilots could Indias lone international airline hire

Bhargava is eloquent in criticising the various practices at the airline, but this leads one to wonder why he spent more than 20 years at the airline, during which he had stints in the HR and the in-flight services departments, though most of his years were spent in the corporate communications and public relations sections. Working as the media interface for the airline, Bhargava had the opportunity to develop close relations with journalists, but instead of building public opinion against the supposed flaws with the management by discreetly alerting the media, he chose to voice his displeasure in numerous letters to the airlines chairman, managing director and civil aviation ministry officials. Some of these letters have been annexed in the last 20 pages of the book and have been heavily referenced throughout.

To his credit, though, Bhargava does admit that he tried to apply for voluntary retirement in 2003, only to be rejected by V Thulasidas, former chairman and managing director of the airline. But surely, that should have given him enough ammunition to speak his mind freely and alert the media against the supposed mistake the airline was committing by making that fateful order of 68 planes with Boeing, which ultimately gave it a massive debt burden of over R40,000 crore. Here, too, Bhargava chose only to voice his displeasure via internal letters or, perhaps, like his peers, he did not want to risk his chances of getting appointed on the airlines board of directors by speaking his mind in public.

He picks on two usual suspects for the airlines rapid downward spiralThulasidas, during whose time the aircraft order was placed with Boeing and the airline agreed to merge with Indian Airline, and former civil aviation minster Praful Patel. In what seems to be a personal attack on Thulasidas, Bhargava says the former chairman and managing director had little expertise to head an airline (he was a chief secretary in Tripura with little experience in aviation). Bhargava also says Thulasidas did not live up to his promise of making Air India one of the top airlines in the world. If such was his opinion of the chairman and managing director, why did Bhargava not let the media know about Thulasidas shortcomings Further, why did he agree to continue with the airline right till the date of his retirement

Bhargava was vehemently critical of the aircraft order placed with Boeing. However, as Thulasidas explained recently in an article he wrote for a national daily, Air Indias planes before the aircraft order were old and required an urgent change. Nearly 30 planes needed to be replaced, 18 were required for Air India Express, which has turned out to be a successful subsidiary for Air India, and the rest of the planes were required for growth.

Thulasidas, perhaps harshly, says Bhargava is a disgruntled former employee upset at not being appointed on the board after 20 years of service. It may or may not be true, but the fact that The Descent of Air India is nothing more than a rant of a disgruntled employee cannot be denied. However, one should definitely read the book to understand the psyche of employees at Air India after nationalisation.

Individual ambitions were more important than the good of the airline. If this werent true, Bhargava, perhaps, would have been more daring and actually done more than write letters to prevent the descent of his karmabhoomi into a debt-laden company synonymous with a public sector undertaking gone wrong.

The Descent of Air India really proves the apathy of the bureaucrats who run the airline, where writing letters and not taking direct action used to be the norm to fix things.