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Issue: 06-2012By Air Marshal (Retd) B.K. Pandey

After turnaround and privatisation, the only alternative with the government today is to gracefully shutdown the airline to prevent it from sinking further into the morass

Even though Air India has had a glorious past, today, the airline appears to have descended into an irredeemable mess. International operations of the national carrier have been in shambles since May 8, 2012, when the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG), representing the pre-merger Air India faction, launched what began as an undeclared strike throwing international schedules out of gear leading to not only extreme discomfort to the travelling public but also causing serious damage to the nation’s image in the world. The strike has also served to aggravate the already doddering finances of the airline. The strike has been triggered by a dispute between the IPG and the management over inclusion of pilots of erstwhile Indian Airlines for conversion to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Members of the IPG are apprehensive that their career prospects would be seriously compromised through this decision of the management. The strike has been widely condemned and has even been declared as “illegal” by the Delhi High Court. Most regard the grounds on which the strike has been initiated by the IPG as unreasonable, juvenile, and even preposterous.

Efforts to resolve the dispute and bring an end to the strike have been characterised by considerable posturing both by the pilots of the IPG and the management of Air India, with the government throwing its weight behind the latter. Both sides have been adamant, hanging on to their respective intractable stance and there is no end to the strike in sight. There is total absence of clarity and firmness on the part of the government or the management. The situation therefore continues to drift.

Performance of Air India has been on a continuous downslide, going from bad to worse especially after the merger in 2007. The airline has been lurching from one crisis to another and has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. It is afflicted with record losses, shrinking market share and frequent labour dispute. The ill-conceived and thoughtless decision to integrate the state-owned domestic carrier Indian and the international carrier Air India has indeed been a messy experience. In its wake, it has generated human resource issues that have defied any resolution so far. It has also led to rivalry, conflict and indiscipline in the organisation and while in fact it was intended to cut costs and make the airline viable, the effect has been just the opposite. Today, the after effects of merger are threatening the airlines existence. Questions that plague the collective mind of the nation are: Was the merger a strategic blunder? How long should the taxpayer’s money be used to keep the airline afloat? Is the situation in Air India irreversible? Is a government-owned airline fast losing relevance in an environment dominated by private carriers? Does the nation need a national carrier at all?

Strikes in Air India have been a routine feature and the travelling public ought to have become accustomed to it taking it in their stride. However, this time, the agitation has been far more protracted than has been the pattern in the past. Apparently triggered by reasons that are trivial, the strike is a symptom of a deeper malaise, much deeper than is understood in the public domain. The airline with a bloated workforce of 28,000, more than twice the global yardsticks for manning, has been bereft of professional management. The airline has been run by bureaucrats who have little knowledge or understanding of the airline industry, have short tenures, are mere handmaidens of the government and are under no pressure of responsibility or accountability. With mounting cumulative losses and crushing burden of debt both of which are only set to increase in the future, the airline is undoubtedly in serious financial crisis and has reached a dead end.