Stock - Air India
As per the deal with the India Government, the Tata Group will retain Air India staff for a 12-month period. The airline will need far-reaching changes at many levels, including a drastic overhaul of the 'bureaucratic culture'. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Dubai: With the Tata Group set to return as owner, employees in India’s ‘national’ airline expect the “bureaucratic culture” that had ruined the airline over the last 40 years will be shown the door.

“It was a good airline - as a captain I always aimed at on-time departure, a comfortable flight for passengers and everything as professional as it can be,” said a former pilot. “People outside wanted to see Air India get a bad name - management was also poor (when under government control).”

Air India's current staff strength is about 9,000 plus. As per the deal struck with the Indian Government, Tata will retain all employees for a one-year period.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Air India was the airline of choice for travelling overseas. The carrier had one of the most professional staff and crew and, most importantly, it had India’s corporate doyen J.R.D Tata as chairman.

Air India’s decline set in once Tata was fired from his role in 1978 by then Prime Minister Morarji Desai. After his exit, the airline was run by government-appointed bureaucrats who were not professionals from the aviation industry and were not commercially- or customer-focused. Losses started to mount almost immediately, and once profitable routes saw other international carriers taking over Air India’s dominance.

On the Gulf sector and for trans-Atlantic flights, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar cracking the Indian aviation market with a more consistent service and operational efficiency.

Call for a strike
Many of the airline’s current staff have more pressing problems to deal with than culture change. A section of the employees have threatened to go on strike from early November if the airline forces them to move out of their government-sponsored living quarters.

The airline had given the affected staff six months to vacate their current premises.

Recruitment bias

According to a former Air India employee, who worked in the airline’s reservation and ticket office, the airline’s fall from the highs may have begun even as early as 1953, when it was nationalized. That was the time the Indian government took control of what was until then a Tata enterprise.

“Bureaucratic meddling was the norm, not so much in managing the airline, but more in the selection of employees,” said the employee. “People with government connections would force management to hire their chosen people whether they deserved the job or not.”

So much so, there were receptionists getting paid more than their supervisors. “It was like that because of government intervention - a minister's daughter will not work as an ordinary clerk on the same pay level,” he said. “Tata’s return will definitely bring in more refine and finesse and will also bring up the standards which we lost under nationalization.”

Back to being a force?

Tata Sons’ buyout of Air India has already sent ripples across the world of aviation and top airlines are taking notice. Indigo CEO Rono Dutta said a Tata Sons-backed group of airlines will give India’s largest low-cost carrier “tough competition”.

“It’s good for the industry – leaving Air India as a government entity is not a sensible thing to do,” said Dutta.

In the international aviation market, Air India could go toe-to-toe with Gulf carriers, including with Emirates airline – the world’s biggest long-haul carrier.

“Will it affect us? Of course, it will affect us. But you know times change, you adapt and adjust,” said Tim Clark, Emirates’ President in an interview with Moneycontrol. “But this one is a bit of an outlier They should have had a national carrier the size of Singapore Airlines or look at Emirates.

“Look at some of the big carriers like Lufthansa, Air France, KLM. But to do that, you have to be liberal in your thinking. I accept competition.”