By T V Mohandas Pai
Our national carrier is in deep trouble. A loss of Rs 20,000 crore, a debt of Rs 40,000 crore, a clueless management, an owner who just does not understand how airlines are run, a fast deserting clientele and 30,000 hapless employees stuck in the middle. There just seems to be no hope for its future. The airline was once the pride of India as well as emerging markets, but today it is a pale shadow of itself, and is fast becoming a national disaster.
There are many excuses doing the rounds for this sorry state of affairs. That the government did not adequately fund the airline earlier, which is true. That the airline took on huge debts to buy new planes which were unnecessary, which is not true as its entire fleet was aged, possibly becoming obsolete in the near future. That the government opened up the industry, allowed private carriers, massively increased bilaterals and compromised Air India’s privileged monopoly, driving it to ruin.
These voices are striking back and holding up the expansion of the industry, denying the private airlines more international rights, and generally working against the Indian consumer. It is a throwback to the bad old days when Air India was India, and what was good for Air India was good for India, and the consumer be damned! The civil aviation ministry then was a ministry for Air India, not a ministry for India with the objective to further the interests of the Indian consumer.
Over 10 years ago, the IT industry in Bangalore requested the government to have direct flights from Bangalore to the US and Europe as clients were reluctant to come otherwise. Air India refused saying it was not a priority. We then asked the government to allow overseas airlines to provide the connections.
From the ministry prompt came the reply informing us that it was their prerogative to decide for us, that there was something called bilaterals, which they decided, and we could fly out of Delhi if we wished and we were not right in championing the cause of overseas airlines. In short, saying their objective was protecting Air India, not consumers and that ‘Air India was India’!
The same voices seem to getting stronger again. As citizens, we need to make the point clear. Air India’s interests are not India’s interests. That the ministry and government should protect consumer interests and that means an open sky policy, more freedom for all airlines in India, whether private or public sector to fly overseas freely, the expansion of bilaterals in areas where Indians wish to fly and to put consumer interests first before all others.
It is also time to consider whether we need a ‘national airline’ at all. This is a concept which most of the world has given up, and if we want one why cannot a Jet Airways or Kingfisher Airlines be our national carrier?