2023 began on a not so happy note for the erstwhile national carrier with an unpleasant urination incident and the airline's clumsy handling of the situation. A barrage of negative publicity followed, adding to the growing disenchantment with the Tatas' handling of the airline in its first year of takeover: January 27 marks one year.
Let me set the record straight here before I get into details. It is unreasonable, if not downright stupid, to expect the rot that has set into Air India in the last few decades under government ownership can be cleaned up in one year. Nor is this a reflection of the abilities of the airline's new CEO, the Tata Group or anyone vested in the process. Not even Superman can pull this one off in such a short span. Almost anyone who is familiar with Air India and its workings is aware that substantive change will take a minimum of two or even three years.
Two, we must remember that the Tatas have in a way done the country a favour by taking this entity out of government clutches. Had this not happened, you and me and the absurdly tiny group of taxpayers in this country would still be footing the bill for all its excesses, akin to a bottomless pit as the past years have amply demonstrated. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, news reports have said that the Tatas are looking to raise $4 billion to infuse fresh capital and refinance Air India's past expensive debt. So, some collective thanks to the Tatas are due.
To come back to how the airline is faring under new reins: We are in a world where appearances matter and under pressure, the airline has more recently embarked on a PR blitzkrieg that is at odds with the inputs fliers provide. Barely a day goes by without a press release announcing usually minor changes, achievements and decisions but what has taken the public, former and present employees and the industry by surprise is how little has changed on the ground in the last one year. The consensus view is that things are not going as well as they might.
I'll begin with some of the more obvious and visible changes. There is definitely new energy at the airline's new office in Gurugram. Anyone who is familiar with the tired feel of Airlines House and Air India's Nariman Point office will testify to this. Besides this, there is a slight improvement in accountability amongst some employees, more out of a fear of losing their jobs than anything else. The airline's direct booking app has improved - although not for frequent flier members - and the airline's on-time performance has picked up, albeit not in terms of time taken to exit the airport since baggage arrival still takes far longer than it ought to. Airline insiders say that some operational parameters have shown improvement but without any publicly shared data, this is hard to confirm.
This is where the list of positives ends. What has been a matter of severe disappointment to many is how little the service on long haul routes has changed. Tata insiders confirm that horror tales of poor food quality and routinely non-functioning inflight entertainment, cleanliness of aircraft and toilets and a host of other services that fliers expect continue to pour in. Business class passengers, in particular, feel cheated when they pay anywhere between ₹3 and ₹4 lakh for a ticket and fail to even kill time on board watching a movie or a show. A friend flying in from New York recently recounted how the crew failed to produce a blanket and said they would "maintain the temperature", whatever that means since each individual reacts differently to variations in temperature.
If external complaints have failed to reduce, internal disharmony is on the rise. Although their claims need to be taken with a large pinch of salt, a growing section of employees argue "things have worsened" since the Tatas took charge. This includes senior commanders, engineers, crew members and even senior management, all of whom are less than enamored with the Tata style of management and have little confidence in the new CEO Campbell Wilson's ability to pull off a turnaround. Sharp factions have quickly emerged and not a week goes by without a flood of WhatsApp messages, many of which warn of an impending disaster (read: accident) amidst a huge HR crisis. It has been labeled within the industry as Air India's "IndiGo moment", a reference to the April 2022 brouhaha at India's largest private low-fare airline, which ended in a very divided house and lingering hostility between the top management and the rank and file.
Those defending the Tatas dismiss this as a figment of imagination of old staffers, who fear loss of privileges, entitlements and even their jobs.
Last but not the least, the erstwhile national carrier continues to guzzle and burn cash like a NASA spaceship since operational parameters are yet to show any dramatic improvement. The airline declined to respond to a detailed email but Tata sources claimed that losses have been curtailed, partly thanks to an improvement in yields. In the absence of real time data — never a strong point with erstwhile Air India — industry observers and analysts have only their word for it. Many Doubting Thomases argue that the Tatas have bitten off far more than they can chew but as a patriot and an industry observer, I certainly hope they are wrong. It is far too early to pass sweeping judgments.