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Monday, 30 October, 2017, 10 : 34 AM [IST]

Once there was a Maharaja

Civil aviation's grown exponentially in India over the last 10 years; more people are flying to more destinations on more airlines more often than ever before. The DGCA figures for domestic passengers show a steady growth rate in high double digits, over 9.5 million passengers flew across the country in July and as we approach the inbound tourist season the numbers are not likely to dwindle.

Oil prices have been hovering around the USD 50/barrel-mark for over two years, down from the historic highs of 2012 to 2014 when oil touched USD 120/barrel. IATA predicts that global airlines are likely to make a profit of USD 31.4 billion and Indian carriers too seem to be on a roll… Well, all except one.

To those who’ve come into the industry in the last 25 years the idea of Air India as a premium airline, as the airline of choice, might seem bizarre; but it’s a fact that Air India was once ranked high among the top airlines of the world with many firsts to its credit – including being the first airline in Asia to induct jet aircraft in its fleet.

The distinctive jharokhas painted around the windows ensured that Air India aircraft stood out at any airport across the world, the beautiful air hostesses radiated grace in their designer sarees as they glided down the aisle and the Maharaja was a lovable mascot – proudly displayed inside every other middle class home; Indians took pride in the national carrier. Air India’s managers overseas were taught to see themselves as ambassadors of the country and were often treated as such! JRD’s baby had captured the skies and the hearts of passengers across the globe, and for some very good reasons.

Iremember speaking to an old timer who was in charge of recruiting air hostesses and he said that they would reject otherwise very beautiful and extremely well groomed girls if their hands were ugly, “Because,” he said “the hands are what the passenger sees everytime the hostess serves something!” A Disclaimer - This is not intended to be sexist; it’s just an example of the kind of attention Air India paid to detail, all the way down to the quality of the toothpicks on board.

And, then, to paraphrase Shakespeare: “O, what a fall was there, my countrymen! When you fell and I fell Whilst bloody bureaucracy triumphed o’er us.” Morarji Desai summarily dismissed JRD and started the downward spiral which culminated in the disastrous merger and the debilitating debt.

But this piece is not only about lament over the decline of an iconic airline, it’s also about the future of the airline business in India, its role as an engine of growth, and the need for a consistently coherent civil aviation policy.

The Government spent crores to build Terminal 3 at Delhi with the dream that it would become an important international hub, but then promptly gave away increased traffic rights to Middle Eastern carriers, effectively sabotaging its own avowed plans, since the international hubs moved to the Gulf!

The low-cost carrier phenomenon took time to come to India but today LCCs account for over 50% of domestic traffic - at fares that are often higher than legacy carriers, because a major chunk of the operating costs - navigation, landing, parking and fuel, remain beyond their control. The government’s UDAN policy has led to a few new routes being started – let’s wait and see how they fare, especially with the capping of fares – but all airlines are seen to be vying primarily for metro routes, with Delhi-Mumbai being the most sought after – inspite of the fact that Mumbai airport seems to have reached its capacity and the Navi Mumbai airport is still mired in problems of land acquisition.

Civil aviation is a great driver of social and economic growth but for it to fulfill its potential connectivity needs to seriously improved. But there’s no direct connection today between Goa and Kochi – both prime tourist destinations; there are just two flights connecting Jaipur and Udaipur, there are no flights between Jaipur and Jodhpur; Jaisalmer remains off the air map as does Agra; there’s a peculiar schedule connecting Delhi, Varanasi and Khajuraho; no connection between Varanasi and Lucknow... this list can go on.

We need more regional airlines operating from smaller/secondary airports with lower operating charges and a rationalisation of taxes on ATF… there are many things we need, and some we don’t - like Aadhar card numbers in PNRs!

As for Air India… While the current buzzword is “Make in India” we shall probably see just the opposite shortly - the dismemberment of a global “Made in India” icon which is to be broken up and hived off in parts. JRD lived to be 89; the airline he founded is 85 years old – the question’s implicit in the statement.

But that’s change – the only constant. Who remembers the Polaroid camera in the age of 24 mp cell phone cameras? Aaah, nostalgia!

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