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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Maharaja Made A Beggar


Call me sentimental or with any such adjectives that can come to your mind in next 5 minutes, but for me the Maharaja would always remain one Maharaja. Our national carrier that we fondly equate with the magnificent caricature character dressed in Red Sherwani jacket and attempting to break the world record for the longest moustaches one can have is in tatters. In fact it is in tatters for close to a decade and half and none seems to do anything about it.

I always have fond memories and a sense of pride for our national carrier. Brand me as overtly patriotic, lost the sense of judgment (thanks to some inspired idiocy) or simply my love for Indian food (which our Maharaja guarantees whenever you fly with them from anywhere); I always make sure to board our own national carrier if there is an availability. In foreign lands where you feel more alienated from your roots, you look up to something for that sense of pride and self-respect and for me after our national flag it is our Maharaja which gives that pride feeling. Not sure about others but it is realty in my case. Standing at the gigantic O'hare airport and waiting for our Maharaja to land from Mumbai with occasional display of Air-India on display boards at gate number 18, I always cherished each and every moment of it. But that joy seems to fade at an alarming rate. The callousness at which the whole airline is been managed and run for last decade; it has left little for revival and lot to answer. Strikes after strike, people at the top of the management running away with the loot, huge amount of tax payer's money being injected in last three years without any significant change, people losing their faith on the national carrier for lesser known airlines, the list is endless. To put the whole thing mildly – not only we have embarrassed ourselves, but also the Maharaja himself. Call it co-incidence or anything; post-independence there are only two things which were coined with the word Maharaja – Saurav Ganguly and our national carrier, with both of them standing at nowhere at present and showing all promises of fading out soon with displaying some humiliating exit. Sad but true – we ashamed our Maharaja. The airlines which was first to help Indians touch the sky is grounded badly now and the people which it carried for decades together are laughing at its situation than helping it flatter it's wings all over again.

I was been telling this – the brand always outlives the product. There might be or might not be a national carrier tomorrow but the brand that the world knows by Maharaja would live forever. From a privately owned 3 fleet airlines by Tatas to a gigantic 200 fleet (Only American Airlines & Lufthansa have a bigger fleet) national carrier now – our Maharaja has made a long journey. Its history is full with glory and exceptional heritage. From flying Shastriji to Tashkent to getting the compliment from JFK as one of the finest airlines he has ever travelled; Maharaja has it all.

But thanks to some dirty politics and crooks at the helm we have lost the image (which took a good 4 decade of tireless effort) of Maharaja in a jiffy. Even though it started long back the real downfall began from the days when our government badly carried out the Air-India & Indian-Airlines merger. In any such big mergers the major factor which needs to be handled with feather touch is the human resource (HR issues). But for some strange reasons the government and the civil aviation ministry conveniently ignored to take this point with any urgency. This left a huge gap in the understanding among the employees on what happened contrary to what has been promised. Rather the employees at both the airlines being given adequate space and time to mold into the new framework, it was thrust upon them with a forced mandate to adhere to them. This is what precisely brought about the employee dissatisfaction. If that was not enough, the continuous mismanagement at the top only made the employees feel more dejected and angry.

In 2007 a good 2000 crore of tax payers' money was injected to our national carrier. The idea was to have new planes to add to the aging fleet so that we can remain competent. But the very year AI made a staggering loss of 4000 odd crorers. No explanation given against this huge loss. The excuse was simple – because the international flyers suddenly decided not to fly out of nowhere. The next year another huge chunk of public money was invested into it. Again that year AI suffered a loss of 11000 crores. This time the excuse was the unprecedented increase in fuel price. Hoping against the hope yet another big bite was invested, leading AI to lose a never heard 16000 crore that year. You guessed it – this time the recession was the culprit. Starting from the recession to increasing in crude oil price. Increasing terrorism to Icelandic volcanic catastrophe. Everything is blamed but the real culprits – the management of Maharaja.

The bigger problem for AI is its top brass employees only. When nepotism takes the better of everything and makes one to appoint a MBBS doctor as the head of the personnel department then you are inviting, Err.. Pleading trouble to visit you. As unbelievable it may sound, it is a fact which even the aviation ministry can't dispute. Do you think a huge airline like AI is being run by doctors and we expect it to fly high – we ought to be naive to believe so. Who is responsible for this mess where connivance is the order of the day with who's who of the incompetent individuals were brought in to manage our national carrier? Certainly not the pilots who are agitating for last week or so. Pilots have the responsibility to fly the plane shouldering the responsibility of the lives of hundreds flying along; not how the organization should be run. Rather being skeptical about the strike we should be thankful to the pilots that their agitation did made us debate on issues that we are doing now. The rot within, starting from our aviation ministry to the ticket issuing beauty at the counter is well in our domain to judge. A simple look at the flights that Air-India operates to Gulf nations can be a good yardstick. While Ethiad, Emirates, Gulf air fly wide bodied aircrafts in the same sector with most of the times going full our Maharaja flies narrow bodied crafts with going empty most of the times. All those Air-India express are in big mess, starting with the quality of service we provide to the concern and responsibility that we show to our fliers. Is this a responsibility of the pilots to fill the aircraft as well as ensuring quality service in a competitive sector? Certainly not; as far as I am concerned.

I have some firsthand experience of our indifference towards our fliers. While flying back from Frankfurt the chaos over 60000 feet on board was quite evident. The issue might be quite trivial but certainly reflects how professional we are. A bunch of Germans were annoyed to the core for not getting the food of their choice. When all they wanted non-veg food, the airhostesses were all over the place in convincing them to avail the veg food instead. The reason – they have run out of non-veg dishes. The excuse was more laughable than everything else. On account of Ganesh Chaturthi they never expected there would be more guys ordering non-veg food than they packed. Disgusting, I think is an understatement. When the irate German finally refused to have the food but instead asked for the complaint book, little did I knew that the shocker was still waiting to unveil. After much deliberation the airhostess accepted the unavailability of the complaint book on board. Let me not explain what the frustrated German uttered against the airline as well as our nation, in an effort to let all know his dissatisfaction. After touching down I made sure to go to the Air-India counter to lodge a written complain on this. When I wanted to write a whole essay on this I just managed to scribe – 'You guys again embarrassed all Indians (at least those in the flight) by your incompetency and unprofessionalism '. Forget about any reply; it is 3 years since I am waiting for an acknowledgement of my complain from them. I am not sure if this is also the lookout of the pilots.

Now that the airline is anything but grounded for last one week, where we go from here? The partial lockout and the subsequent complete lockout as mulled by our government are not going down well with me. More than the national pride, we need our national carrier to regulate the fare structure. No sooner Air-India went crashed; the private airlines have increased their fare by double the amount. So one can imagine what could be the scenario if we shut down Maharaja. Along with Maharaja the dreams of guys like Capt. Gopinath of seeing the bottom line Indians flying would crash down the bad way. Let it be the crisis in Egypt or Libya and we want our citizens flown back to safety; it always was and would be Maharaja that pressed into service. I know we can force the private airlines to do the job but how effective it would be is anyone's guess. More than just national pride, there are hundred other reasons why we want Maharaja to keep flying.

The fundamental question is – how? The environment that's been created by the prolonged mismanagement of last decade doesn't give us much confidence. One solution could be to form a Satyam recovery like team to fix things once-and-for-all. If our government can go ahead with such adventure for a private company then why not for our national carrier, where there is more than just investor's interest is involved? In all likelihood this is highly unlikely. Because any such act would clip the wings of our aviation ministry a big way, leaving them as just namesakes for the count. This is what I am sure won't be well appreciated by our aviation ministry sleuths and the crooks alike in the management. All said and done, I don't think we will have our Maharaja afloat for too long until there is a see change of attitude and the presence of few no-nonsense individuals. Hope we will manage to resurrect our national carrier, some-how the-other and won't prove the age old cynicism surrounding the aviation sector – How one can become a millionaire in aviation sector? Start with a billion

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