Air India has some serious ambitions for a turnaround in five years.

Will its plan work?
Air India has some serious ambitions for a turnaround in five years.
File: ANI

By setting clear milestones focused on growing its network and fleet, and aggressively hiring talent, the airline plans to increase its market share to at least 30 percent in the domestic market while significantly growing the international routes

Campbell Wilson knows well what it takes to win a game of test match cricket. Unlike T20, where slog shots and boundaries often matter more than anything else, test cricket is a measure of patience, technique, temperament, and grit. And that’s precisely why in his new role as the CEO of the Tata Group-owned Air India, Wilson is padding up to play it patiently, happy with singles and doubles to keep the scoreboard ticking, by the end of which he hopes to turn around Air India to its once-famed glory.

“Restoring Air India to its former glory is not a T20 match,” Wilson told Forbes India in a video interview. “It’s going to be a test match and within that test match, there’s going to be patience and persistence and partnerships and maybe the occasional sixes and fours. But it’s going to be largely a function of accumulating ones and twos and building that foundation.”

Wilson took charge of Air India in the last week of July, and in the short time since, Air India, according to him, has already begun to see an improved on-time performance to start with. In April, the airline was 6th in terms of on-time performance, and by September has improved that to 3rd overall, behind Vistara and Air Asia India. By his own estimates, Air India was estimated to have been the best performer, but sister airlines Vistara and Air Asia India beat the 90-year-old carrier to it, according to the latest data from the country’s aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).

Air India’s on-time performance of 87.1 percent at the four metro airports in September this year was better than market leader IndiGo’s performance of 84.1 percent. “So, there’s been constant improvement and that then leads to some positive reinforcement. People get excited, and they see progress,” Wilson says.

Wilson joined Air India after Ilker Ayci, the former chairman of Turkish Airlines, declined to join the airline after being hand-picked by the Tata Group in February this year. Wilson came to Air India from Scoot, the low-cost arm of Singapore Airlines where he had been serving a second stint as the CEO, after initially being appointed as the company’s founding CEO in 2011.

 “We do ask people to have a little bit of patience with us,” Wilson says. “We’re trying to do as much that touches the customer as quickly as possible. But we need to address the foundations, not just the superficial things.” Already, Wilson and his team have set out to do some quick fixes on the airline by replacing carpets, curtains, and seats on the aircraft while also repairing the in-flight entertainment among others that have long come under criticism for their shabby upkeep. “But it is not the final product by any means and we’re working hard on that,” Wilson says.

 “Air India is one of the most challenging turnarounds in aviation history,” Satyendra Pandey, the managing partner at aviation services firm, AT-TV says. “There are legacy issues, generational issues, and cultural issues and these require a direct and unapologetic approach. The airline business continues to be a high-touch, capital-intensive and service-oriented business and Air India has to put out a product that is either exceptionally cheap or exceptionally good. All indications are it will focus on the latter and strategy will have to centre around that. A lot of these issues will not appear in data and thus data-driven decision making while important cannot be a total solution.” 

So, what’s the new plan for Air India?

In September this year, Air India unveiled a new plan titled Vihaan.ai, which translates to the dawn of a new era in Sanskrit.

According to the plan, Air India says it has set itself clear milestones focused on growing its network and fleet, developing a completely revamped customer proposition, improving reliability and on-time performance, and taking a leadership position in technology, sustainability, and innovation, while aggressively hiring industry talent. Over the next five years, the airline will also look to increase its market share to at least 30 percent in the domestic market while significantly growing the international routes.

“We’ve been very clear that it’s a five-year programme,” Wilson says. “The first six months are about addressing the accumulated grievances and issues that have historically been holding the airline back, address them at war scale, and then move on to an 18-month programme of investing in systems, people, aircraft, training, internal products to make a clear statement of intent. Then the subsequent couple of years is the climb phase which is where we do all those million and one little things that are necessary to go from very good to world-class.”

“Let’s be very clear,” an industry expert said on condition of anonymity. “The Tatas did not get the best of deals. They got a broken airline, and they essentially paid for the slots because the airline is bleeding money. The path to profitability isn’t going to be anytime soon and can’t be without a couple of billion dollars. But, if there is anybody who can turn around the airline, it’s the Tata Group.”

Wilson is acutely aware of the serious challenges in turning around the airline. “Air India has had a challenging few decades of underinvestment and that also is reflected in the fact that there hasn’t been a lot of recruitment in key technical areas in the business,” Wilson says. “While there are some fantastic people in Air India, there hasn’t been an injection of fresh ideas or new perspectives.”

In October this year, the company announced that it received some 1,752 applications for pilots and 72,000 applications for cabin crew over a two-month period, and the company is currently assessing them. Air India had not made recruitments in non-operations areas for more than 15 years and wants to add employees into functions such as revenue management, sales, distribution, network planning, and marketing in addition to human resources, finance, and analytics among others. Last week, the airline announced the appointment of Henry Donohoe, formerly with Emirates and Norwegian Air, as its head of safety, security, and quality functions.

“The human resource factor will be the core determinant of success in years to come,” Pandey of AT-TV says. “If one looks at the most successful airlines, the single largest investment has been in people. However, cultural norms must also be factored in. Copying the West, especially when it comes to people practices, simply does not work. Whether it’s open-style offices or modes of communication–these must be seen and developed in the India context. For Air India, it is a delicate balance between continuity and change and this requires a good mix of old and new.”

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