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India: Is the Tata Group's Air India revamp working?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
May 16, 2024

Two years after the Tata Group's acquisition of India's national carrier, Air India, the conglomerate's plans for its smooth turnaround has turned into a bumpy ride.

An Air India Express aircraft is seen in foreground as Indian Air Force Sarang helicopters perform an aerobatic display during the 'Wings India 2024' aviation event
Reports linked the sudden strike action to simmering staff discontent over new hiring and promotion policies imposed by Air India's new ownerImage: Mahesh Kumar A./AP Photo/picture alliance

Over 100 crew members of the Air India's budget subsidiary called in sick at the last minute earlier this month, forcing the airline to delay or cancel at least 175 flights during the strike action.

Dozens of disgruntled cabin crew workers said they walked out to show their objection to changes in Air India Express' human resources policies after the carrier was taken over by the Tata Group in 2022, as part of efforts by India's government to privatize the debt-ridden airline.

The absence of senior cabin crew led to commotion across the carrier's network, resulting in chaos at several airports as hundreds of passengers were left stranded.

Facing head winds

A month earlier, reportedly upset at reduced guaranteed pay, pilots at Vistara, a premier carrier Tata co-owns with Singapore Airlines, also staged a mass sick leave. The staffing crisis grounded more than 100 flights.

Employee unions of both airlines have aired concerns ranging from stifled career progression to inequality, low pay and job security.

Apart from labor issues, the carrier also has to deal frequently  with complaints from passengers about problems such as broken seats, delays, malfunctioning in-flight screens and cleanliness.

Crew members walk past an Air India Express Boeing 737-8 aircraft during the Wings India 2024
Air India Express said that it had made every possible effort to minimize the inconvenience caused by the sudden mass sick leaveImage: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

When will passenger satisfaction improve?

Many had hoped that the sprawling Tata Group would swiftly revive the airline's former reputation as the "Maharaja of the Sky" (King of the Sky) after decades of government neglect.

But the multinational conglomerate is still struggling to restore the high-flying days of India's national carrier.

Tata is currently consolidating four airlines: Air India Express and AIX Connect, which currently operates as AirAsia India, are being merged, as well as Vistara and Air India.

Civil aviation experts and travel companies believe that it will take considerable time to completely overhaul India's newly privatized 92-year-old flag carrier.

Umesh Kamath, managing director of Dravidan Aviation Services, pointed out that the assets of Air India, the routes, and a well-established network were its advantages — but said that the carrier suffered from human resources issues, as well as a lethargic workforce.

"The top management has good vision for the future with the mergers which will increase the service quality and image of the carrier. However, the labor force and unions are a serious cause for concern," Kamath told DW.

Will India become an economic superpower?

Booming airline industry

Yet, India's aviation sector is poised for impressive and healthy growth in terms of passengers, aircraft and airports.

The Indian government has earmarked around $11 billion (€10.2 billion) to build new airports and refurbish existing ones.

Additionally, India has become the world's largest aircraft purchaser after the US and China, with its fleet size set to grow from 713 to upwards of 2,000 over the next decade.

In 2023, India's airlines placed orders for 970 aircraft.

In February 2023, Air India alone ordered 470 aircraft, including from Airbus and Boeing.

'World class airline'

Jitender Bhargava, former executive director of Air India, told DW that the true significance of the acquisition would be realized in 2027, given the work needed to restore Air India to being a top tier world-class airline.

"Improving brand reputation, technology, service and acquiring aircraft takes time. This is not a T20 cricket game for instant dividends but a test match, which takes time, patience, and focus," Bhargava told DW.

Hardi Oza Patel, a travel curator of Velvet Escapes concurred, saying that although taking over a debt-ridden carrier was a strategic move and a leap forward, time was an important factor.

"To set the crown right, it takes time, persistence and patience, which Tata has been doing despite criticism and unrest among its staff and airline workers. It will be a proud crown of the Indian aviation industry," Patel told DW.

The Tata group currently holds a 29% share of India's domestic traffic and accounts for 56% of international passengers among the country's airlines.

Betting on turnaround

Air India CEO Campbell Wilson said the group was undertaking a massive project and the journey to restoring Air India to its former glory was well under way.

"If you look at the net increase in the number of aircraft available to us, it's well in the 550 sort of range," Wilson said in an interview with skift.com, a travel website.

"And so that is powering a rate of growth, which is almost unprecedented in the industry. We are taking a new aircraft every six days. We have for the last six months, and we will continue to do so for probably the next 12."

Many aviation experts and travelers realize that the Tata Group's takeover of Air India presents challenges — including operational hurdles and internal issues — which are in the process of being ironed out.

Air India Express said it had withdrawn termination letters issued to at least 20 striking cabin crew workers, according to local media reports. An airline spokesperson had earlier said it had taken "appropriate steps against certain individuals."

The airline is also working on integrating new aircraft into its fleet, while decommissioning older ones.

Edited by: Keith Walker

Flying greener with e-kerosene

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Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11