Saturday, July 30, 2011

Long Live The Maharaja, The Maharaja Is Dead!

If anyone would ask a person from the generation of the 1970s or the 1980s, they would recall a few brands like Air-India being truly iconic. But it is really sad how these iconic brands can die, Air-India stands testimony to that!
In the 1980s, the airline was truly a symbol of India's pride. Being a pseudo-socialist state in the outer orbit of the Soviet system, India as a country had little to project to the world.
But Air-India took India to the world, with its unique mascot, the Maharaja, with its trademark tongue-in-cheek adlines. The airline had a young fleet, straddling the world from the Pacific and North America to an extensive network in Europe and Africa. Traditional Indian motifs in the cabin, its classic livery, exceptional customer service made the airline a real treat.
As kid, Air-India was special - it always fascinated me for its lovely livery, its Jumbos and the toys they used to give kids on-board.
The airline was a pioneer of sorts - it was the first all-jet airline, with the induction of Boeing 707s in the late 1950s, the first Asian airline to cross the Atlantic to being one of the first Asian airlines to have Boeing 747s.
I can say for sure that the airline was always preferred for its customer service. Fact is that my folks always preferred Air-India when they actually did have the choice of other carriers.
But Air-India's fall from its lofty, prestigious position has been tragic to say the least.
And news (or say some may say rumours) has been sneaking in that Air-India's long overdue induction in to the Star Alliance may not happen at all. The deadline expires tomorrow, July 31, 2011. (The induction into the Star Alliance would have been a major plus for Air-India - branding abroad, seat-sharing, seamless connectivity, etc.
Even more depressing was the news yesterday that employees were not paid for months and are being forced to liquidate their assets to survive. Mr. JRD Tata, the airline's father, must be turning in his grave.
If one looks at Air-India, it has always been at the mercy of the Indian government. Government policies have dictated that the airline provide services for ferrying VIPs, by taking them off their scheduled services (and not getting paid for these VIP operations!).
The government had forced the airline to get into subsidised flights for Islamic pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia. The airline also had to evacuate Indian citizens from warzones in the Gulf, a feat for which it holds a Guinness World Record.
While the airline was implementing the government's agenda, it barely had any autonomy to operate flights on commercial considerations.
The airline had been seeking permissions to fly to Melbourne, Australia (primarily business and visiting friend and relative traffic) which was not forthcoming. However, Qantas flies full from Bombay to Australia three times a week. What was the logic in denying the rights to fly to Melbourne?
The Bombay-Dubai route is a heavy load route. Now Air-India operates only two Airbus A321 flights a day on this sector, the aircraft seats just about 170 passengers. But on the other hand Emirates operates 5 flights a day on the same sector with Airbus A330s and Boeing 777s - both have a capacity of about 300 seats each. That makes the Emirates inventory on the route about 1500 as against Air-India's 340 odd. Even Jet Airways has 3 daily seats on this sector - a total inventory of about 450 seats. Clearly Emirates is milking the market, but Air-India cannot operate any more flights. Does anyone ask why?
Other routes tell the same story. Air-India pioneered the Bombay - Johannesburg route in the mid-1990s. By the end of the 1990s they exited citing commercial reasons - poor load factors or what ever. But now, South African Airways and Jet Airways flourish on this route - Jet has daily flights while South African flies 4 times a week, both have decent load factors. The same story holds true for the Bombay - Tel Aviv route, where Air-India withdrew completely but El-Al flies full, thrice a week on the same route. Air-India pulled out of the Bombay-Nairobi route recently, but Kenya Airways flies daily on this route.
Now Nairobi, like Johannesburg and Addis Ababa is a gateway to Africa, which has a large Indian expatriate community as well a diaspora. There has to be a good traffic, that's logic, that can be seen at Bombay's airport, but that is something that Air-India fails to see or is unable to do anything about.
Business - technology and defence and tourism between India and Israel is booming. So why can Air-India not fly to Tel-Aviv. Has anyone asked why Air-India cannot fly to San Francisco (IT traffic) or Turkey / Switzerland / Mauritius (tourists) or Antwerp (diamond trade)? I don't think so.
The business opportunity is there (India being a growing market, increasing globalisation, etc.), but is ignored, while other airlines make money.
That is evident when Air-India's marketshare of outbound traffic slipped to a lowly 4th or 5th position.
Then they say Air-India is not profitable, cannot make money and therefore should not expand. Today there are question marks on the Boeing 787 deal - are the aircraft really required?
How can you run an airline without a new fleet and without a motivated staff? You cannot.
Well if you ask me, the airline, which has a magnificent brand, is being killed. Not only is it allowed to operate on profitable routes, but rights on those routes are ceded to other carriers. Then, the airline is not allowed to renew its fleet - in today's market, a newer fleet gives an airline efficiencies as well as a chance to offer the passenger a better experience.
And the last nail in the coffin would be the denial of entry into Star Alliance - most likely Jet Airways will take Air-India's place there.
If anyone has to be blamed, it is the government for letting a national identity wither away. Long live the Maharaja, the Maharaja is dead!

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