Air India comes home, but it is a whole new world now

Ajay AwtaneyUpdated: Thursday, January 27, 2022, 11:20 PM IST
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New Delhi: A worker cleans the name plate of Air India office in New Delhi, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. | (PTI Photo/Atul Yadav)

The beleaguered Air India has finally come home to the Tatas; the group is taking over the national carrier 69 years after its nationalisation.

Air India is in considerably worse shape than when it was nationalised, with mounting debt and unhappy employees; the aircraft are not in the best of the condition and a bloated bureaucracy is running the carrier. A lot needs to change, and the word on the street is that the Tata Group will hit the ground running from day one.

Tectonic shift in aviation sector

There has been a tectonic shift in aviation over the last few decades, and new business models have emerged. Flying is not a luxury but a commodity now. Different airlines cater to various segments of the market. For instance, if you look at the US, Delta runs the best operations. However, American Airlines has the best frequent flyer programme, and Southwest offers an excellent product to value travellers. The Tata Group will need to pick its position in the market with respect to Air India. And not forget that it owns Vistara in the process.

Unbox Air India

The Tata Group has set its initial target low. They have been working with group company TajSATS, responsible for most airline catering in the country, to design upgraded meals for the airline. There has been another initiative to focus on the grooming of the cabin crew. The crew have been briefed to refer to passengers as guests from here on. JRD Tata was famously known to be obsessed with details, and these are some details that they can focus on, even before they set foot in the door.

However, unbox the airline, and there are huge issues that need to be resolved for the perfect passenger experience and make Air India a leading international carrier again. Here are some thoughts on what needs to be fixed pronto.

Today, when you step onboard an Air India widebody aircraft, you will witness extremely poor upkeep of the aircraft. The arm rests could be broken, the in-flight entertainment won’t work, and the paint has chipped away. Unfortunately, this has been the case with the airline since 2016, if not earlier.

Remove, refurbish widebody aircraft

These issues with the aircraft are time-consuming to solve, and the airline needs to fix them once and for all. Air India will remain India’s primary long-haul carrier and that is where it can make money, not the commoditised domestic market. Each Air India widebody aircraft needs to be removed from service and given a complete revamp. Without sinking a few million dollars into each plane, the airline can’t hope to become a preferred choice for passengers.

A lot needs to change, from IFE to seat upholstery to paint. While they are at it, Air India should also try and densify its aircraft to fly more people on the same plane. One of the ways to do it would be to remove First Class and make Business Class the top cabin on the aircraft. Air India can introduce Premium Economy on their widebody aircraft and move from a 3-3-3 Economy cabin to a 3-4-3 Economy cabin.

The ground experience at Air India also leaves so much to be desired. Air India plans to continue operating its lounges at major airports like Delhi and New York’s JFK. However, you only need to step inside these lounges once to figure out how bad they are. On a recent trip to the Air India lounge at Delhi’s Terminal 3, there was broken furniture, dingy lighting, and no wifi. And this was the case at its hub, right under the nose of the management. Other airlines wine and dine these customers, not AI.

Spruce on war footing

The airline needs to look at its commercial practices, too. Air India has been a member of the Star Alliance, but just for its namesake and the bragging rights. The airline has not formed deep commercial relationships with many other carriers. It does not offer codeshares outside the country to sell as many tickets as it should. The baggage allowance on domestic routes is a whole 10 kg more than the rest, which takes away the capability to monetise the space in the belly of the aircraft. And the frequent flyer programme ‘Flying Returns’ is needlessly more challenging to appreciate than cracking a brutal chess game. These need to be rationalised before the airline can be great again.

It is possible, and doable, at a war footing too. It has been done before. British Airways is a shining example. The Tata Group just needs to hire the right talent and give them the freedom to execute. And they need a great aviation leader to lead the change from the front.

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