Will Air India Regain its Past Glory?
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard this Air India Flight … We have been cleared for take-off and should be airborne soon. Thank you for choosing Air India. We should reach our destination at … Meanwhile, sit back, fasten your seat belts, and enjoy the in-flight service…”.
It’s been many years since I chose to fly Air India when other options were available, and I dare say that is true of many of you readers as well.
A new beginning for Air India in a tougher environment
Now that the Government has completed the sale of Air India to the Tata Group, I am hopeful that the airline will regain its glory from 25+ years ago – even in an environment that is much more competitive and vastly different, thanks to a number of reasons including the pandemic-imposed restrictions on flights/travel, the soaring cost of aviation fuel and indeed many other input costs. Also, in the intervening years, our once-venerable national airline has lost significant market share, and regaining it will not be easy.
There are some signs that after 18 harrowing months, the aviation industry may have put the worst behind it. For example, Emirates is expected to restore 70% of its pre-pandemic capacity by end of 2021. Data from FlightRadar24 suggests that average weekly departures of flights briefly crossed the comparable figure in 2019. In India, Indigo Airlines, reported a 44% increase in passengers since early 2020.
The journey to regaining market share and past glory is long and arduous
Merely wishing for the airline (which, during the 1960s was one of the top large airlines in the world) to regain its past glory is not enough. All stakeholders need to play their roles well- the government, the new management, airport operators, ground service handling agencies and above all, passengers like you and me.
Business leaders talk about “customer experience”, and what they are doing to constantly improve it. (Remember Jan Carlson’s “Moments of Truth”?). While customer experience is largely digital for some industries, in sectors such as airlines and hospitality, there are inherently large elements of “in-person” elements of experience. In an age when every business operates in “ecosystems”, customers expect additional benefits. Indeed, frequent flyer and loyalty programs have for years been attracting customers with deals on hotels, local transportation, restaurant discounts etc.
There are many head-winds and possibly, lots of turbulence that the Tatas- and Air India- will need to overcome in the long-haul flight to becoming a leading airline brand that is once again loved, respected and preferred by customers around the world.
The new Air India needs to address every link in its customer experience chain. This includes:
- A great digital interface (app/website/call centres) to make it easy for customers to select flights and buy tickets (and make selections around food, seating preferences, need for wheelchairs or other special needs etc.)
- A large network of routes (the starting point is of course what it has inherited in the sale)
- Smooth check-in and baggage handling (possibly with differentiated services for passengers traveling light)
- A fleet of clean, well-maintained, state-of-the-art aircraft (this may mean terminating leases on old aircraft and leasing new ones)
- Professional, well-trained crew (pilots, cabin crew) and other staff who contribute to smooth running
- Orderly boarding
- On-time flights
- Smooth handling of passengers who may miss connecting flights due to flight delays
- Good service on board (choice of food and beverages, catering to special dietary needs etc.)
- Efficient baggage handling at destinations
- Good frequent flyer program with multiple partners providing a range of discounted services/products
- Mechanism to capture customer feedback and redress any grievances so that customers will want to fly Air India again and again.
Given its flying rights to almost every continent, it still remains the only Indian airline capable of providing truly global connectivity. Also, the Tatas have investments in Air Asia and Vistara- so they will surely look for ways to synergise operations. Ensuring the above will take time (not to mention significant investments), and I am sure the Tata Group has hit the ground running.
Each passenger choice can make a difference
But all the above only deals with Air India and its service capabilities. The demand side of the equation is what we can influence. Although Air India is now privately owned, it is still an airline owned by Indians. I strongly believe that as Indians, we must, to the extent possible, take pride in the rejuvenated Air India and give it the support we can by flying with them as often as we can. Just as the Japanese, Chinese, Germans and French make it a point to fly only their airlines, I believe we as Indians too should do the same.
Earlier, MPs/MLAs and government officials were required to fly Air India/Indian Airlines. That may no longer be the case- although I would urge officials of the central and state governments/PSUs and MPs/MLAs to continue to fly Air India. If you are a leader with influence over your private sector organization’s policy, I would urge you to encourage colleagues and employees to fly Air India. Of course, while this is subject to the Air India option making sense in terms of fares, flight timings, connections etc., I feel that we should be willing to make minor sacrifices.
I for one will fly Air India in the days ahead, and subject to my experience, will seriously examine the possibility of becoming a regular Air India passenger again.
PS: I hold no brief for the Tata Group or Air India; these are my views as an Indian who takes pride in the country and wants to contribute in every way possible to our country’s growth and prosperity.
Now that the Government has completed the sale of Air India to the Tata Group, I am hopeful that the airline will regain its glory from 25+ years ago – even in an environment that is much more competitive and vastly different, thanks to a number of reasons including the pandemic-imposed restrictions on flights/travel, the soaring cost of aviation fuel and indeed many other input costs.