He may be in the hot seat at the moment but Campbell Wilson, the less than one-year-old CEO of Air India, finds himself in comfortable and familiar territory in more ways than one.

A New Zealander by birth, Asia is something he's familiar with, having worked in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, besides Canada, New Zealand and Australia during his 26 years with Singapore Airlines (SIA). Through his career, regular and frequent trips to India in various roles for Singapore Airlines and as the chief executive of Scoot have helped him acclimatise to the Indian environment, culture and ethos. With his wife of Sri Lankan origin, he feels at home with the Asian values, mindset, beliefs and customs.

Also, working in favour as he takes on his career's biggest challenge are his last two career stints: setting up Scoot, a low cost subsidiary of SIA in 2016 and leading sales and marketing for SIA as it embarked on a major transformation have given him the combination of experience he needs to fix Air India, since it is to his mind as much a "a start up as a massive transformation". To say he has his plate full as he takes India's erstwhile national career under his wings would be quite an understatement.

Taxi-ing For Takeoff

Although his past ten months have been far from a smooth ride with several ugly incidents to firefight, Wilson backed by a small team of Tata insiders have put together a transformation plan which the team including some of the old existing guard (executive directors) of Air India have been busy executing. This has included adding several new destinations and frequencies on the domestic and international network while bringing in new leased aircraft, refurbishing the existing fleet, investing in IT and systems, hiring across the board including commanders and crew, while firefighting and managing the daily crisis the old Air India was always prone to.

Of the three phases of Air India's three transformation pillars, Wilson says that the taxi-ing stage is what is behind them and the two stages that remain are take off (April 2023 to March 2024) where the airline will try and build for excellence and create a pull to culminate in the final stage (April 2024 to March 2027) when it aims to scale, grow and assume leadership. In Wilson's own words, his work has really only just begun.

Why Take Off Promises To Be Tougher

Although Wilson says he does not find his present assignment particularly challenging in any way, many argue that it is still very early days and that as time goes by, his execution and leadership abilities, resilience and people management skills will be intensely tested. Airline insiders and observers say the "easy part is over" and now begins the slog in which a few fault lines are already emerging.

Three major issues have arisen in the past few months, all of which have led to growing resentment against the management. A recent contract based on 40 hours of fixed flying instead of the earlier 70 hours has raised hackles of the two biggest pilot unions in the airline - the IPG and ICPA. Adding to this unhappiness was the fact that the airline has been again on the lookout to hire expat pilots and the terms and conditions for Indians and expats vary. This remains a thorn on the Indian side, across airlines. But what really upset the unions was a clause in the contract that allowed the management to make unilateral changes in the employment terms while keeping the staffer in the know. The unions had examined the new proposed contract against the Tata code of conduct and found 15 specific infractions.

While the unions had taken up the matter with the airline's management and were locked in a bitter confrontation, events overtook them when Go First declared bankruptcy, leading to several of the airline's pilots approaching Air India and Vistara for potential jobs. This quickly led to a change in stance adopted by Air India unions as the excess became evident, although the issues continue to fester and resentment and hostility continues to simmer amongst its commanders and crew.

Even as these problems linger, a new element has emerged, leading to massive resentment all round: the proposed induction of expat pilots for the 777 aircraft, an issue that has plagued the Indian aviation sector since Jet Airways inducted foreign pilots when it went international back in 2005. At the time, the airline had to induct foreign pilots which raised its own set of problems in India but it had no option as India did not possess a trained pool. However, the terms, conditions and remuneration levels offered by the airline to the expats always leads to a divide and is a sore point for the Indian crew. Recent attempts by Air India to hire some senior and seasoned Jet commanders for the 777 highlighted the unreal bubble the Air India management seems to exist in when it offered them pay packages which were a third of what they were earning in Jet when it shuttered. Some of them even told the airline that they would fly their aircraft for free since Air India appeared to be in need, rather than work for the peanuts on offer!

This divide might begin at the level of the crew but it is equally evident at the management level. Time and again, Indian airlines' senior management members across carriers have been less than cooperative with an expat CEO or chief of operations or safety as they feel slighted that someone is brought in and placed above them in their own backyard and environment, one they feel they understand best. This has been true in Jet, SpiceJet and even IndiGo over the years.

For an airline where there are already two camps: the former Air Indians and the former Indian Airlines staff, brand new camps are emerging within the organisation with the Tata's inducting new talent. One of the latest bones of contention has been the latest hiring of a new head for safety, Henry Donahoe, a Singapore national, who airline sources allege is being paid many times what they have to do "similar work" and has "failed to make any significant dent in our day to day operations" although Wilson is categorical that such hires would remain more an exception where he perceives a significant need rather than a rule. Air India, he reiterates, would remain essentially an Indian company, in body and soul.

A senior top management source in the airline says that so far he can only see a change in nomenclature: director for operations has been rechristened chief operating officer and director personnel is now chief human resources officer but he argues that the functioning, thinking and mindset is yet to undergo any real or fundamental change. "What will be eventually tested is Wilson's talent picking and people management skills since transforming Air India is above all a mindset and attitude change above everything else." A former Ministry of Civil Aviation (MOCA) secretary adds, a trifle more cynically: "Air India will have to be transformed despite the Air Indian, not thanks to them."

Transformation too remains a sore point for those resistant to change as the airline has brought in a clutch of external consultants including BCG, McKinsey and PwC India among a few others to advise on various matters including strategy, operations and HR matters. This too has raised many hackles as this is something the employees have witnessed time and again as various Air India CMDs experimented over the years and tried to improve performance with help from external consultants. "If consultants could solve the problems this airline has been beset with, we would never have been sold," says a present commander, who is close to retirement. He scoffs at the latest "khichdi of consultants" who have been hired to ostensibly resolve complex issues.

External consultants have been a bit of a sore point in Air India since former CMD Arvind Jadhav stirred up a hornet's nest in the airline back in 2014 when he took charge and with the help of consultants set about making drastic changes in the airline including reducing its employee count (it was around 32,000 at the time) and wage bill (it was three times the salary bill of Jet Airways with approximately the same number of aircraft). Although many believe that Jadhav was the first CMD to truly bite the bullet, circumstances and vested interests ensured he was removed before he could make any substantive transformation in the national carrier. Many believe his progress was scuppered above all by employees within who opposed any change in working and culture of the airline.

But perhaps the biggest elephant in the room and the factor that is making everyone jittery all around is the impending merger with Vistara. Employees of both airlines — from the very top to the bottom rungs — are wary since the airlines have very different cultures, ethos and operating methods and systems. Vistara staff in particular is not looking forward to the prospect of merging with Air India just as things were beginning to look up. For the first time since inception and in eight years of flying, the airline claims it has earned its first small profit albeit in one quarter, is EBITDA positive and has achieved a market share of just over 10%. Complaints were low, loads on aircraft high and it had good on-time performance. This is great news for all concerned as it appears to be finally getting somewhere. It has over a period of time managed to doggedly create a distinction between its product and that of its rivals. More than one Vistara staffer views this marriage with impending dread, akin to entering a new dark tunnel just as a ray of light was beginning to emerge.

Wilson however is quick to allay any fears Vistara staff may have, arguing that with the kind of growth planned at Air India, there is enough and more room for everyone - not just for Vistara employees who are willing but anyone in India's aviation industry with the right experience and attitude.

The Several Million Dollar Question: Will It Be Wilson Who Leads The Climb

Many in the organisation are of the view that Wilson may not last the course to take the airline to the world stage as claimed. There are two reasons for this.

One, many argue that the Tatas do not want a visionary but more a plan execution specialist who will execute the overall plan. The recent exit of former TCS CEO Rajesh Gopinathan is being attributed to this constraint. This, sources argue, may work initially while Wilson "finds his feet" but may eventually frustrate him.

But many in Air India senior management feel that he has so far not given them the confidence that "this is the man to lead us to salvation". They cite instances of many expat CEOs across India's airlines who have failed to come to grips with India's realities and unique methods of things. "The whole jugaad concept is often beyond them since their countries are obsessively process and systems driven whereas India is a market that requires you to turn a blind eye to many of these things," says the CEO of a rival airline. He cites the instance of former SpiceJet CEO Sanjay Aggarwal who had moved from the U.S. to run the airline in 2010 but threw in the towel after over one year with the carrier as he failed to come to terms with the Indian way of doing things including handling of the then owner of the airline Kalanithi Maran. "India is a different ball game," he adds.

Less charitable insiders however argue that Wilson will exit as soon as resentment grows. "Packages offered to expat CEOs and other senior staff are totally over the top and not in sync with the Indian reality," says an Air India commander who has been with the airline for his entire career. He says Wilson was recently handed out a fat cheque for having improved the airline's on time performance, leading to widespread resentment as it made it appear like he managed this feat alone. "Such bonuses and incentives alienate the rest who have been working for decades with intent but remain under-appreciated or in oblivion," he points out.

Whether Wilson finds the grit, support and strength to navigate these choppy waters and takes this ship to the glorious height that the Tata group and many Indians envisage and hope for remains to be seen but the ride promises to be anything but dull. Interested onlookers should stay glued.

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