Saving Air India: Don’t leave it up to the govt; here’s what you can do to keep Maharaja alive

Updated: Jan 29, 2020 5:35 PM

While the government is desperately trying to offload its stake in the national carrier, crowdfunding could be one way to save the airline from the deathbed.

Air India,A “Revive Maharaja – Revive India Pride Fund” entirely funded through public contribution can be floated. (Courtesy: PTI photo)
  • Neeraj Jha

I write this with a lot of hope. A hope that this will arouse national pride in the moribund Maharaja and a hope that the same can be used to give it back its wings. It’s important each Indian, flying or otherwise, starts taking the same pride in the national carrier’s mascot as they did earlier. Nothing represented India and Indianness globally more than The Maharaja.

Sad that the country’s most ubiquitous and recognisable symbol globally is lying on deathbed today. And sadder, we haven’t been able to do much about it. It is time we did something, and soon. Many would agree that Air India still offers the best flying experience within India. Those traveling abroad have to perforce fly a foreign airline. They do that, give them business out of compulsion, not a choice. It is not a nice feeling doing that. It seems — and I could be wrong here — that more airlines fail in India than elsewhere in the world. Maybe India is a uniquely difficult aviation market. This, if it is so, and what makes it so, are matters of deeper research best left for experts to do. I won’t either hazard a post-mortem of what went wrong or what could have been done better. Superior brains have already done it many times over. I have no magic formula. What I’m recommending is simple:

  • Float a “Revive Maharaja – Revive India Pride Fund” entirely funded through public contribution to the tune the airline owes its lenders. Seemingly, it’s the massive debt/liabilities the airline is carrying on its book — reportedly Rs 56,000 crore — that’s been putting off potential buyers. Let’s crowdfund this debt. The country, according to one estimate, has some four crore Indians that fly. With each contributing Rs 14,000, we’d raise the required Rs 56,000 crore. Other option can be to take a chip of the amounts we pay as income tax. Let’s call it “Maharaja Cess”. Most proud Indians will pay it out of sheer love for the country and this iconic Indian symbol. Those who want something in return can be issued shares (convertible debenture).
  • Utilise the proceeds to pay off the debt.
  • Let Ministry of Civil Aviation take control (own it 100%), put the best management and team in charge to run it professionally, profitably and, most importantly accountably. No need to invite bids.
  • And if we do invite bids, let the Government, ideally the Ministry of Civil Aviation, keep the majority stake as is the case with some top airlines including Singapore Airlines.

My small research revealed that “government-owning-100%” is the most popular model globally. Some of the best-run airlines such as Etihad and Emirates follow this model. Singapore Airlines is somewhere in the middle. Temasek holds 40% in it, while the majority is with the Singapore Government. Interestingly, Lufthansa and British Airways are on the other extreme where the respective governments hold 0%.

I’m not getting into the debate what services a welfare-state government like ours must or must not operate. But our government must — for more than one reason — run Air India, just the way it runs the Indian Railways. My list has education and milk production as well on it as they provide our nation vital raw material to build itself. But more on that later.
I believe I represent a vast ocean of proud Indians that want Maharaja return to its glorious best. And if it means burdening our pockets a little, so be it. I’m sure all of us will still consider ourselves lucky to have done something for a national cause.

  • Neeraj Jha is Communications Head at a private bank. Views are the author’s own. 

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