Campbell Wilson has had a turbulent 11 months as CEO in charge of Air India. Amidst the 470 aircraft order—the biggest in aviation history—and the management team's ongoing effort to turn around the legacy carrier, Wilson talks to Fortune India about the revival journey so far and what's left to be done.
What has been your primary focus after taking charge?
Air India had not received investment in technology, people or product for a while. So, its environment was not as confident about the future as it could have been. We have begun to change this by investing heavily in these areas. We are on a massive recruitment drive. We are investing $200 million in upgrading technology and IT systems and $400 million for refurbishment of the existing wide-body fleet. And last, but not the least, the $70 billion aircraft order makes the message loud and clear—Air India is set to make its mark on the global stage.
Passengers are keen on improvement in service. When is that likely to become more visible?
There has already been a qualitative improvement in services on offer. On-time performance has improved, as has catering, both domestically and internationally. We have refitted a good proportion of the fleet with new carpets, cushions, seat covers and curtains—100% of required improvements have been carried out for first and business class and about 80% for economy class.
What are your three priorities?
I can't put a number but the list of things we have to do is very long. Demonstrating substantive growth is top of the agenda. We are in the process of leasing 36 aircraft, including 11 wide-bodies. We have pulled 20 long-grounded aircraft back into service and, in the next couple of months, will receive the first few aircraft as part of our new order; 40-odd aircraft are likely to come in the next 12 months. We have restored services from Delhi to Vienna, Milan and Copenhagen. We have announced services from Mumbai to Charles De Gaulle and added services to Heathrow. In all, we have added 16 destinations, taking the total to 38, and increased frequencies on 11 existing ones. The domestic network has been expanded. We now fly to 43 domestic stations. Second, fresh hirings are big on our agenda as the airline has not been doing this in a structured manner for almost 15 years. We will hire close to 900 pilots and a few thousand cabin crew, apart from others. And last but not least is the robustness of operations and systems. We have to operate a tight ship, a safe ship, and be as punctual as possible. A lot of work remains to be done here.
We had outlined a transformation plan with three stages: take off, taxi and climb. We have just about completed the first stage by fixing the basics and signalling growth.
How many employees have taken VRS and where are staff shortages and excesses most pronounced?
If one took out flying staff, the average age of the organisation at the time of privatisation was 53. People's day jobs will change. Some welcome that, others don't. So, VRS was the way forward. Of course, there is no target for VRS. It is voluntary. I would not say we have excess staff. The erstwhile Air India was a paper-based organisation because of low investment in technology. The new Air India is a lot more digital and systems driven. So, the nature of work will change for many, even if overall numbers stay the same. The airline is growing considerably, so people who stay will be doing more work in terms of the number of aircraft and seats they support. With respect to shortages, it was perhaps most acute in IT. The last hirings in IT happened in 2007. The world has changed significantly since then.
We have a good pipeline of commanders. We have had a shortage of B777 aircraft since the pool of commanders and first officers in India trained to fly this aircraft has been small, stagnant or even shrinking. We are bringing in 11 aircraft in a short period for which we have had to temporarily hire externally. A trained commander will build our 777 capabilities.
There is heartburn among existing commanders about this. Indian crew, in fact, management too, resents expats as we have seen with other airlines in the past.
The alternative to not recruiting expats is not taking B777s and that means everyone loses out. If we don't take these expat commanders, first officers, crew and passengers will not get an opportunity. Let me clarify that this is temporary, at best for one or two years. With aircraft orders placed, aircraft we are taking on lease and seniority structure we have announced, the path to command in Air India is better than most airlines in the world.
We have often seen friction when expat CEOs bring their own people to head divisions. How will you handle this?
I have worked in different cultures, so I have experience. My moves so far have been to recruit Indians for most roles. The only exception so far on a permanent staff basis is hiring of a chief of safety and security where I felt that bringing in international best practices from a global airline was required. At a management level, let me state clearly that Air India is and will remain primarily an Indian company. It should represent India but it should also represent the world's best. To the extent that we can do that by keeping it primarily Indian we must, but it still needs to be the world's best as well.
A lot of Vistara staff fear losing jobs, seniority and line of command. How do you hope to tackle this?
Yes, there will be a change in environment but we would encourage them to look at new, not old, Air India. We are completely changing work practices and it will be a very different airline. Moreover, we will be merging in a context of dramatic growth and investment in product, people and systems. So there is room for anyone who truly wants it. The job size they get will be at least as big as they had before, the remuneration will be at least as big if not bigger and the path to growth will be better even if the reporting line alters. It is a chance to be part of what is a national story and transformation.