AI back with Tatas but skies are grey

It is good news that the Tatas have their baby, Air India, back in their fold. However, the euphoria may be short-lived if the group fails to reposition the airline in a modern avatar, even as the Maharaja’s image is kept intact.

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By Chanakya

Air India has been sold, back to the Tatas, if one may put it that way. The Tata Group has acquired it with a huge baggage of debt, but the primary plus point is as former Union Aviation minister Gajapati Raju pointed out in a recent interview the airline has been performing with remarkable operating profits of late.

What have been dragging the airline down are its debt service obligations. This is the biggest drag, and the Tata Group has to address this on a war footing.

That apart, while the Airline has tremendous Indian support on its international routes, it will be necessary for the Maharaja to don a new set of attire, repositioning it for new age travellers.

It is good to think of the airline coming back to the Tata fold stories of how JRD Tata started it abound and this gives a good feeling. But let us be realistic. The airline comprises old aircraft, with questionable maintenance and cabin decor and design that may not be entirely appreciated by the millennial travellers or profitable.

As an Air India fan, this correspondent can say with confidence that the cabin crew of the airline are possibly the best among Indian airlines. They are helpful and well behaved, and they are experienced. One thing that the Air India staff are not, is officious or standoffish. You sort of feel ‘at home’ aboard an Air India flight, flying back to India.

Yet, maybe that was the feeling one got, knowing that it was ‘your’ airline in a way, flying with your tax money. This will no more be the case when you know that it is a private sector enterprise. Then Air India will be left with the massive competition on price, routes and other facilities.

So, will this airline again become a global competitor? Experts feel that it is quite possible, if the business side is handled well. That, however, presents a problem. The Tata group, even while being a $ 106 billion conglomerate of over 100 companies, and even with investments in two other airlines Air Asia and Vistara has little direct experience in running an airline.

The complications of this business today are massive, and the group has to hire the right people to steer the airline through international skies.

The plus is that the airline will no more be catering for freebies for MPs and other government officials, neither will it be required to do involve itself in rescue operations, as it always has. Such time generation can be channelized to profiut making ventures.

However, consider a situation where the management, under pressure to service the massive debt decides to make money out of every operational activity of the airline. Think of a situation in which such profit booking at every juncture makes it less desirable than other international operators.

That would be a disaster. The Maharaja’s dress sense needs to change, but it has to cater to a vast range of customers who have grown accustomed to the old Air India, or are accustomed to other efficient international airlines.

Suresh Nair, an aviation veteran working with various domestic and foreign airlines for over two decades, has been quoted in the media as saying: “If the Tatas are able to rebuild the airline to its past glory, which is going to be a herculean task, there is a huge opportunity for Air India in terms of international traffic that is currently carried by various global carriers.

Air India’s success on the India-US routes is a clear indicator that there is a demand for direct flights on Indian airlines provided it meets the expectations of the flying public.”

Yet another airline executive broke up the problem into smaller parts. He said that the airline needs an image makeover to attract the young fliers. Why? Because, today these fliers make up 53% of any international airline’s passengers. And Air India will be no different. He said that this number is set to rise to 60%.

As the Covid pandemic subsides worldwide, this is possibly the best time for an international airline to take flight in a new format. How much the Tata group can afford to invest further considering the already existing debt burden is to be seen. According to this official: “The needs of millennials are totally different from the kind of product and service offering that AI has.

This (attracting millennials) will mean positioning yourself as a modern, technology-driven, innovative and environmentally conscious airline rather than being seen as an old relic from the days of being a government-run enterprise.”

The skies are grey, but the sun hides above the clouds. Probably it is just a matter of time before Air India emerges from the turbulence below.

Some Facts about Air India:
Air India operated the longest flight in the world

On the February 6, 2017, Qatar Airways flight QR921 took off for the longest non-stop flight in the world from Doha to Auckland with a flight time of 17 hours and 40 minutes. However, it may have been be longest flight in duration but not in distance.

That pride of place belongs to Air India. Its service from San Francisco to Delhi covers 9,500 miles, which is almost 700 more miles than the 8,825 miles between Qatar’s capital and the biggest town in New Zealand. But due to tail wind and the rotation of the planet, Flight AI173 only requires a flight time of just 14 hours and 30 minutes.

Karachi to Bombay was Air India’s first service
On October 15, 1932, the first ever Air India flight took off in Karachi. By then the airline was known as Tata Air Service, which was founded by J.R.D. Tata, one of the most influential business tycoons in Indian history.

A single-engine de Havilland Puss Moth carrying air mail took off from Karachi to Bombay (Mumbai) and then continued to Chennai. The flight was piloted by Neill Vintcent a former RAF Pilot and good friend of Tata. After World War II, Tata Air became Air India.

First Asian Airline to operate a Jet
The Boeing 707 revolutionised air travel and was first put in service in 1958 with its launch customer Pan American World Airways. Only 2 years later in February 1960 Air India would welcome its very first Boeing 707 jet to its fleet making it the first ever Asian airliner to operate one. Just 2 months later the 707 would go into operation serving flights to New York.

First international flight to London
On the June 8, 1948 Air India undertook its very first international flight from Bombay, known as Mumbai nowadays bound for London Heathrow. The flight was operated on a Lockheed Constellation aircraft, also known as Connie.

 It was the most efficient piston-powered aircraft of its time with over 800 airplanes build which were in regular service with various airlines around the world until the late 90’s.

Biggest Evacuation in history
On August 2, 1990 Saddam Hussein Revolutionary Guards entered Kuwait and took control of the country within 3 days. That move took many Indian citizens by surprise and the majority of them were eager to leave the war zone.

The massive expat community was evacuated in just 59 days. It needed 488 flights to evacuate 111,000 Indians back to the homeland. It has been the biggest evacuation in the history of mankind to date.

Air India was the first all-jet airline in the world
Air India was the first Asian airline to operate a Jet aircraft, but it was also the very first airline in the world to have a jet-only fleet in June 1962.

The Boeing 707 was the new backbone of the airline and was an important part of the airline for almost 25 years. The last Boeing 707 revenue flight was undertaken to Mumbai from Harare, Zimbabwe on October 29, 1986.

27th member of the Star Alliance
Air India was the 27th member to join the Star Alliance which was founded in 1997. Air Canada, Lufthansa, Thai Airways, SAS and United are the 5 founding members.

In 2017 the alliance consisted of 27 members and 40 affiliates such as Air Japan or SunExpress. The alliance is considered the biggest worldwide and serves 192 countries. It has a fleet of almost 4,700 airplanes and carries 640 million passengers annually.

Delhi airport fastest growing in the world
The main hub of Air India is the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. It is the 20th busiest airport in the world and traffic has increased by 21% from 2015 to 2016 making it the fastest growing airport worldwide.

Air India’s main hub handled 55 Million passengers in 2016 and is the only carbon neutral airport in Asia. A status just a handful of airports have achieved.

Air India has one of the largest Dreamliner fleet
The fleet of 27 brand new 787-8 Dreamliners was complete by October 2017 when the last 3 Boeing’s are supposed to joined, reducing the average age of Air India’s fleet.

The airplane comes in a 2 class configuration featuring 18 Business Class seats and 238 in Economy Class. The Dreamliner was introduced to service in 2011 with the Japanese carrier and 5 Star airline All Nippon Airways which is also operating the largest 787 fleet in the world.

One of the last Boeing 747 domestic flights
You won’t find a Boeing 747 on a domestic route very often nowadays. Also during the prime time of the Jumbo, the airplane would have been most efficient on international long haul flights.

However, due to very limited slots at Mumbai and Delhi airport, Air India had no choice but to change the aircraft to increase passenger capacity. The flight time is about 2 hours and secures you a spot on the ‘Queen of Skies’. The Indian Flag carrier has 4 remaining 747’s with an average age of 21 years.