The Maharaja and the message

Written by Dilip Bobb | Updated: Oct 13 2013, 09:08am hrs
It was back in the 70s when I took my first flight abroad. No prizes in guessing that the carrier was Air India. While there were a limited number of airlines operating out of India back then, there was a more forceful reason for choosing the national carrier. It was one of the best in the world. The flights were punctual, the service was excellent, the cabin staff were well-trained and responsive, and the aircraft were well-maintained and spotless. The Maharaja was not just a branding exercise, it came pretty close to royal treatment. That was some years after it was nationalised, but JRD Tata was still at the helm and there was a visible sense of patriotism and pride in the air, literally, which made it such a superior airline. It was Indias most visible symbol in the international arena back then, and the jewel in the crown.

Over the years, it became such a royal pain, thanks to politicians, the bureaucracy and its own internal failings as a corporate entity competing in a global market, that I stopped flying Air India. On the occasions that I did, out of necessity, I was disgusted at the deterioration in every aspect of its operation. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the airport. I flew Air India One on a few occasions as a media representative. Air India One is the call sign given to the aircraft that flies the prime minister or the president on official trips abroad. Admittedly, flying the prime minister imposes a new set of rules and discipline on the airline, but the transformation is quite remarkable and VIP flight or not, there is a subtle but unmissable message in the way the aircraft operates and the standards of service. The same air hostesses who are so indifferent on a commercial flight, the flight crew who think nothing of showing up a couple of hours late, or not showing up at all, are at their professional best. And Air India at its professional best is a hard act to follow.

It begs the question: Is privatising the airline the answer On past record, it certainly seems the only way to drag the airline, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Heres the catch: National carriers have a worth and purpose that goes beyond mere financials. Many aviation experts have argued that emerging economies need strong national carriers for economic growth, and to promote tourism and trade. Alitalia, Qantas, United, Air New Zealand, Iberia are just some national carriers that have been bailed out by their governments. The difference is that the bailouts came with a definite, time-bound turnaround plan. Air India has come up with turnaround plans that havent worked because the rot goes so deep and the unions have become so strong that it will take nothing short of a gun-to-the-head approach to get the airline and its pampered staff into a spirit of revival, forget patriotism.

The aviation industry is flying though a lot of turbulence right now because of oil prices and the global economic slump. When the going gets tough, it needs a tough response. If aviation history has any lessons, the answer lies in leadership, and it will do no harm to look outside for the best available. US Airways went through terrible strain after 9/11, but it was turned around by strong leadership. Heres the lesson: They got tough with the pilots unions and negotiated salary cuts to the tune of $1.5 billion. Similarly, Piyasvasti Amranand, an economist with no aviation experience, turned around Thai Airways, while Air New Zealand was turned around by Ralph Norris, a banker. The same thing happened to struggling Malaysian Airlines when Idris Jala, a professional working for Shell, was given charge, and a free hand. The common message in all these stories is that the turnarounds took place after choosing the right leader and giving him a free hand to conduct tough negotiations with staff where compensation was linked with productivity, cost-cutting was ruthlessly enforced and the unions were devalued. If thats what it takes to get the Maharaja to take a bow, its worth a try. Id be more than happy to fly Air India if only they could recapture the spirit of the Seventies.

The writer is Group Editor, Special Projects & Features, The Indian Express