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The new Air India is a work in progress. The Tatas will get it right sooner rather than later

The upgraded airline will have to do a lot better than Vistara if it is to live up to the legacy of JRD Tata.

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Mukesh Ambani has always said that Reliance only gets into a business if it believes it can change the face of that industry. Tata Group chairman Natarajan Chandrasekaran is more circumspect, but there is no doubt that, in aviation at least, the creation of a giant airline entity—which the Tatas announced this week—can transform the industry.

The new entity will include Air India (113 aircraft), Vistara (54 aircraft), Air India Express (24 aircraft), and AirAsia (28 aircraft). It will become one of the largest airlines to take flight in India, and if, as rumoured, the Tatas order or lease another 300 aircraft over the next few years, it could well be on its way to becoming Asia’s most important airline.

Its only competition in the region would be Emirates, but bear in mind that at least part of Emirates’ business comes from India. We have so few direct flights to the West that passengers find it easier to change planes in Dubai, which is effectively the biggest airline hub for India. A re-energised Air India could easily change that.

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Where it went wrong

In all my years of writing about travel and aviation, I have noticed a strange paradox. Indians often complain about Air India, but if you post a positive tweet about the airline, you will receive an equally positive response.

We may love to criticise Air India but the love outweighs the criticism. There are vast reserves of untapped goodwill for the airline among most Indians. It is our airline, so we want to love it. But for decades now, successive governments have made it more and more difficult for us to give Air India the love it deserves.

It wasn’t always like this. Till the late 1960s (well after it was nationalised but with JRD Tata still its chairman), Air India was regarded as one of the world’s top airlines. In those days, there were no Middle Eastern carriers of consequence, and Singapore Airlines was still part of a joint venture with a Malaysian carrier. Air India was the boutique alternative to the giants who dominated the skies (BOAC, PanAm, TWA, etc.) and had an enviable reputation for service.

It all went wrong in the 1970s, when civil aviation ministers such as Karan Singh, who had presided benevolently over Air India’s success without interfering unnecessarily, were replaced by ministers who wanted to act like they owned the airline. Worse were the bureaucrats who insisted on being involved in the nitty-gritty of operations. By the 1980s, Air India’s real boss, on a day-to-day basis, was a joint secretary in the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

Everybody knew this. But successive governments failed to do anything about it. In the 1990s, Madhavrao Scindia, as the civil aviation minister, tried to privatise Air India, but the proposal never made it past cabinet. Atal Bihari Vajpayee tried again a decade later, but the attempt failed because only the Tatas seemed willing, which meant no auction could be held.

The Narendra Modi government, to its credit, has done what should have been done three decades ago (by some co-incidence, the civil aviation minister who oversaw the privatisation is Jyotiraditya Scindia, completing a task his father had set himself) and while the Tatas were, once again, the only serious bidders (I doubt if SpiceJet was ever truly serious), the government completed the process in record time.

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A shrewd business venture

Despite all the negativity, it is quite possible for an airline to flourish in India. We sometimes forget how big IndiGo has become (with 289 planes, it will still be larger than the new Tata entity) operating mainly on domestic sectors.

Nor are Indians bad at hospitality. The Tatas understand that: they run the Taj group – one of the world’s strongest hotel brands. When it was still flying, Jet Airways set new standards for airlines in the region, offering services that were often on par with Emirates and Singapore Airlines. If Jet and IndiGo, both founded and run by ambitious entrepreneurs, could do it, why can’t India’s most respected business house?

So, a purchase built on sentimentality could turn out to be a shrewd business decision as well. But it is not going to be easy. For all its success, Jet Airways suddenly collapsed. And Vistara, despite the seemingly unbeatable combination of Singapore Airlines and the Tatas, has never quite fulfilled its potential. It is a curiously anaemic brand, not as good as Jet (in its heyday) in all respects, especially in its ground handling, which can be pathetic. The new Air India will have to do a lot better than Vistara if it is to live up to the legacy of JRD Tata.

So far, it augurs well. I imagine that the new entity will face a tough fight with IndiGo in the domestic sectors. But smart management will help Air India regain its superiority in this, its traditional market from its Indian Airlines days. It will face greater challenges on international routes, especially when it tries to lure away premium passengers (who are the profit centre for every airline) from the likes of Emirates, which is one of the world’s best airlines.

I have been a very vocal Air India loyalist for most of my life, but I am not blind to the airline’s faults. Apparently, when the Tatas took over, they were shocked by the poor condition of many of the aircraft, both inside (broken seats, for instance) and outside (engines in need of repair). Many Air India aircraft have had to be grounded, which has kept the airline from resuming all the international flights it operated pre-pandemic.

On the other hand, there has been a huge improvement in morale, and on the three international flights I took recently, the ground handling (at Delhi, Sydney, Bengaluru, Male, and London) was outstanding. Better than any American or European airline.

The problem remains the inflight experience. Rather than improve the (mostly disgusting) food and wine, the Tatas have only improved the language of the menus so that the food sounds like heaven but tastes like hell. Nor have inflight services improved in the same way that ground handling has.

But the new Air India is a work in progress. With a bit of luck, the Tatas will get it right sooner than later. And yes, they may well change the face of the aviation industry and give India an airline we can all be proud of.

Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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