Could Air India close?

Well, Indian newspaper headlines from last week might suggest that.

The first headline was “Air India only make money on two international routes”.

A few days later I spotted the following – “Air India to close loss-making routes”

Do the math as they say.

The new Indian government which was supposed to be aggressively pro-business and do away with cronyism seems to have been moving very slowly and much more gently than promised. Air India needs huge surgery and a very aggressive management prepared to almost start the airline from scratch.

Loss-making airlines that either are, or have been in state-ownership all have the same problems whether it is Air France, Alitalia or Thai, Malaysia Airlines and Air India – too many staff, poor quality staff, weak financial controls, too much political influence and either outright corruption or a softer form of “influence-peddling”. Cutting loss-making routes is not the answer. Instead, airlines in this position need to ask why other airlines are making money on the routes and they are not.

Airlines regularly trim a few routes from their schedules but if Air India does anything more than this, they are wasting their time. It would be like giving an elastoplast to someone with a severed artery.

Thinking of flying Air India?

Some airlines get undeserved bad reputations. You might imagine that Air India is not quite as bad as some people make out and be tempted to book a ticket. If so, the following might interest you.

An Air India Airbus A320 was flying from Bangkok to New Delhi. After take-off, the First Officer, Ravindra Nath, excused himself from the flight deck and went to sleep in the Business Class cabin. A few minutes later, the Captain, B.K. Soni, called a couple of cabin staff and instructed them on how to keep watch on the controls. He then left them in charge and went to join his colleague to sleep in Business Class. Unfortunately, someone accidentally touched the controls and the auto-pilot was switched off so the pilots had to be called back to take over. It is said that the two pilots were out of the flight deck for between 20 and 40 minutes, though Air India insist that “at no time was the cockpit left unattended by the flight crew” which does not appear to tally with the cabin crew’s version of events.

The story only came out because one of the cabin crew was concerned and complained to the Indian safety authorities.

Every airline has a few bad apples and rules will be broken on occasions. What is remarkable about this case is that two pilots should think that it was even remotely acceptable for them to behave in this way. One can only assume that this was not the first time the individuals had left the cockpit in the control of cabin staff and that other pilots in the airline do something similar.

The Indian Civil Aviation Safety Council is blaming the government’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation for its “lackadaisical” supervision of airlines which has led to an increase in accidents and safety violations. 

Something looks to be very seriously wrong with Air India and the safety supervision of the Indian government.


Air India Applies to enter Cloud-Cuckoo Land

It is hard to imagine a major airline with more problems than Air India. It has been grossly badly-managed by the government for decades and has lost money consistently. It is now as good as bankrupt, some of its senior staff face corruption allegations, it struggles to pay its staff on time, it has a bad reputation for service and serious safety issues. In short, a huge financial headache for the government.

So what is the solution? Easy – just sue Boeing for $1 billion.

Air India ordered 27 Boeing 787′s and delivery has been delayed due to the set-backs to Boeing’s development programme for the new aircraft. Compensation will no doubt be paid to airlines affected by the delays – but $1 billion is simply crazy.

This nonsense has not just been dreamt up by someone at Air India but is actually supported by the Indian government. In turn, the US government is using pressure to persuade the Indians to be more realistic.

Air India is already something of a laughing-stock so this affair probably cannot make matters worse. However, the Indian government is anxious to show the world that they are now a major economic force, not a poor developing country that needs aid at every turn. This case shows that the government has a very long way to go before it can be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, as we have long reminded readers of Inside Traveller, Air India is an airline to avoid.

Do Not Fly Air India

Air India has just announced that “due to year-end financial commitments”, it will have to delay paying staff by ten days this month. This is not the first time the airline has been late in paying its staff. The private Indian airline, Kingfisher, also has a chequered record of payments to staff and others.

We do not think the airline is going to go bankrupt because, in the end, the government would have to step in. However, we strongly disapprove of airlines that take advantage of their staff in this way. Air India is in a desperate mess because of years of government mismanagement – it is not reasonable to expect the staff to pay for this.

There are many ways of selecting airlines based on quality of service, reliability, fares and even the generosity of their frequent flyer programme. However, we think an airline that cannot afford to pay its staff falls at the first hurdle.

Our strong advice is that you should not fly Air India for the foreseeable future.

Has your pilot been paid?

Yesterday, a group of Air India pilots staged a silent protest at Mumbai Airport to highlight the late payment of their salaries.

This is not a new issue. Air India and Kingfisher Airlines have frequently delayed monthly payments to staff – sometimes with advance notice and sometimes without. They have also held on to various extra allowances so some staff have only been paid their basic salary for several months.

It seems to us a very basic rule that if an airline cannot afford to pay its staff, it should not be flying. As a passenger, you are bound to wonder what else the airline cannot pay for. You do not want to pay the normal fare only to feel the staff are working out of charity for the airline.

India is very proud of its new reputation as an economic powerhouse. It is time the government (the ultimate owner of Air India) took its role seriously and cleaned up the airlines. That might mean the re-capitalisation of Air India and a forced merger of Kingfisher with the more professional Jet (with the Kingfisher management being shown the door).

At the moment, we strongly advise against flying with any Indian airline.