Air India definitely ruled the skies and still flies amid growing competition from minnows. But it has never gotten over the government-corporate cultural and operational contradictions. PIC FROM WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

HIS moustache remains well-twirled and right hand charmingly waves a welcome. But the red-and-yellow tunic that looks royal without representing any royalty reminds of a hoary past. Among the most prominent symbols of modern India, the fabled “Maharajah” (emperor), is up for sale.

After years of hesitation and bailouts in billions by successive governments, the Modi government wants to disinvest Air India, the national airliner.

It’s complex and will not be easy.

“Only the brave will take on Air India,” said industrialist Anand Mahindra.

Even Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who announced it, calls it “art of the possible”.

Flown for long by a demoralised crew at the whims of political bosses and officials, it is sinking in its losses that currently total 520 billion rupees (RM34.7 billion). The bloated airline is now in its 75th year.

Qatar Airways reportedly showed interest. But, the Gulf nation is tackling a huge diplomatic standoff that is unlikely to be resolved soon.

The Tata conglomerate that originally founded it did nurse sentimental value. But it maintains sphinx-like silence on persistent media reports that its chairman, N. Chandrasekharan, held talks proposing 51 per cent stake in collaboration with Singapore Airlines.

Tata returned to aviation with low-cost AirAsia India, with Malaysian Tony Fernandes and full-service Vistara, operated with Singapore Airlines. Both are reputedly doing well.

IndiGo, the largest budget airline in India, has sought Air India’s international operations. But the government wants to retain Air India as a single brand name that has immense value.

Air India commands only 14 per cent market share. The rest is with IndiGo, GoAir, SpiceJet, Jet Airways and others.

“If 86 per cent of flying can be handled by the private sector, so it can also handle 100 per cent… The 520 billion rupees could have been used for education,” Jaitley laments.

This is his second attempt. The wave of privatisations in the early 2000s failed to touch Air India. Its merger with the domestic Indian Airlines in 2007, of which I wrote with optimism, proved messy, escalating operational snags, dissatisfaction among their highly unionised employees and worst, combined losses that have spiralled ever since.

As Air India’s management launches image makeover plans, seven employees’ unions have threatened an indefinite strike against any privatisation move. As part of cost-cutting efforts, one of them wants salad off the menu on flights.

Air India is part of post-colonial Asia’s aviation success story. Philippine Airlines, officially founded on Feb 26, 1941, is considered Asia’s oldest scheduled carrier, still flying under the same name.

But Air India began earlier, in 1932, as Tata Airways, when the legendary JRD Tata flew a single engine De Havilland Puss Moth carrying air mail from Karachi to Bombay via Ahmedabad.

Post-World War 2 came the decolonisation of Asian skies, with the establishment of Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific (September 1946), Orient Airways (later Pakistan International Airlines, October 1946); in 1947 came Air Ceylon (later SriLankan Airlines), Korean National Airlines and Malayan Airways Ltd (later Singapore and Malaysia Airlines); in 1948 came Israel’s El Al and Garuda Indonesia; then Japan Airlines (1951) and Thai Airways International (1960).

Air India scored many landmarks. It was the first Asian airline to enter the jet age with a Boeing 707-420 in February 1960. Twenty-eight months later, it became the world’s first all-jet airline. It introduced Palace in the Sky livery and branding in 1971. In 1993, its Boeing 747-400 operated the first non-stop New York-Delhi flight.

Air India entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people evacuated by a civil airliner. During the 1990 Gulf War, more than 111,000 people were flown from Amman to Mumbai, a distance of 4,117km. Air India operated 488 flights from Aug 13 to Oct 11, 1990 — lasting 59 days.

Another airlift from Qatar involving 700,000 Indians will begin this month by its subsidiary, Air India Express.

Maharajah definitely ruled the skies and still flies amid growing competition from minnows. But it has never gotten over the government-corporate cultural and operational contradictions.

JRD Tata considered the nationalisation of the aviation industry in 1953 arbitrary. Yet, he became the first Air India chairman at then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s behest. After 25 years in office, when Air India grew manifolds, he was unceremoniously removed.

The government is exploring how airlines across the world have resolved their existential issues. Some analysts call this Air India’s “British Airways moment”. Four years after it was privatised in the 1980s and 22,000 staff fired, British Airways made profits. Will Air India be able to do it when the government wants the future buyer to accept all liabilities and commitments?

Air India has an ageing staff averaging 48-50 years, paid 35 to 50 per cent higher compared with budget airlines it is competing with. It has no hire and fire policy.

But, hold it — Air India, for one, remains a functioning airline.

It has hectares of land to sell or lease. Its 31 hangars across the country were in 2007 valued at 80 billion rupees — it must be more now. Besides domestic ones, it has specific time slots enabling landing and departure at airports around the globe, including in New York, Chicago, London, Narita and Seoul.

Air India’s fleet of 116 aircraft, excluding those flown by its subsidiaries, includes some brand new ones like the four Boeing 787 Dreamliners and three Boeing 777 under order, to be delivered in the next few months.

And don’t write off the experienced work force of 1,600 pilots and 2,000 engineers.

Will the Maharajah, having lost its “magic carpet” stoop to conquer? Will it retain or lose its identity?

The Maharajah is down, but definitely not out.

***The writer, NST's New Delhi correspondent, is the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association 2016-2018 and a consultant with ‘Power Politics’ monthly magazine

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