Air India’s agony, ecstasy — and angst

Clash of cultures can also happen in fancy boardrooms and swank airports

Wednesday morning saw employees of Tata’s low cost Air India Express going on mass leaves, many apparently even switching off their mobiles Wednesday morning saw employees of Tata’s low cost Air India Express going on mass leaves, many apparently even switching off their mobiles.

It’s a culture clash of sorts. But what today’s Air India Express imbroglio has laid bare — over 80 flight cancellations and thousands of air passengers stranded across the country later, is this: when corporate hubris take precedence over cultural sensitivity and soft skills, clash of cultures can happen not just on streets and battlefields, but in fancy boardrooms and swank airports as well.

Wednesday morning saw employees of Tata’s low cost Air India Express (AIX, which itself is an integrated outcome of the original Air India Express which plies low-cost flights from India to the Persian Gulf, with Tata-owned domestic carrier AirAsia India) going on mass leaves, many apparently even switching off their mobiles. By afternoon, an irate Ministry of Civil Aviation had nudged the Gurugram-headquartered company to “solve issues promptly”, and asked for a report.

It is an eerie redux of a similar outburst a month ago at fellow-Tata airline Vistara. There, pilots went on mass leave, first in a trickle and then in droves. In both cases, the reason is the same: the ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ policy of integration of both airlines (Vistara is set to be assimilated into Air India, while low-cost Air India Express and AirAsia India are already operating as one) by a corporate brass in a hurry. 

Interestingly, an Air India Express employees union even wrote to Tata chairman N. Chandrasekharan complaining of ‘inequality’ in treatment, when it came to grades, perks and positions. Many senior staff were fired, the letter said, speaking of widespread unrest and growing dissatisfaction.

“Employees find themselves silenced when attempting to address grievances, with management actively suppressing any dissenting voices on company platforms,” according to the union letter.

Ironically, one news report states the Air India authorities as saying that the particular union is not recognised by the conglomerate. Perhaps not the smartest of moves at this juncture, yet indicative of all that is going wrong at its aviation businesses.

Vistara’s integration into Air India was originally supposed to happen 2024-25, though it was pretty clear that the standards difference between the nimbly run younger airline, and the legacy government-run giant with a bloated workforce used to a Sarkari pace of working was not something that could be assimilated in a hurry. Despite that, recent moves indicate that the company is in a rush to speed it through, with aims of a single airline plying, Air India, by the end of this year as planned.

By all indications, it is now clear that Tata’s ambitious ‘Vihaan.AI’, the five-year transformation roadmap they had set for the assimilation of the conglomerates airlines isn’t exactly going to plan. Despite the fact that all its airlines put together still amounts to less than half of market leader Indigo’s share, Tata airlines still seem to invite an inordinately more amount of customer and quality complaints, if social media posts are any indication.

While Tata management is unlikely to respond to the specific allegations by employees, their dilemma is also evident. While the purse strings have been loosened when it comes to the cash-guzzling aviation business, Chandrasekaran and Co also doesn’t want it to remain a cash-guzzler for long. 

Particularly right now, when Indian aviation is on the verge of a boom. Letting go off the advantage right now to a fierce rival like Indigo that is itching for global domination means Air India and Air India Express might just never get a chance like this again.

Legacy too has its bewitching pull. There’s nothing like a turnaround of these legendary brands, in a sector notorious for crushing even the most ambitious of tycoons, that would once again stamp that Tata brand of excellence in public consciousness.


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