In an interview with businessline on the sidelines of HVS Anarock’s HOPE 2023 conference, Air India CEO Campbell Wilson shares the revamping of the airline’s frequent flyer programme and Star Alliance initiatives.

He also addresses concerns about supply chain constraints and the pilot shortage.

In terms of competition with other airlines, Wilson acknowledged IndiGo’s position in the LCC segment but emphasised the potential for collaboration in the Indian tourism market. As he put it, “Competition is competition and it is a good thing.”



What is your outlook for Air India in the coming fiscal? 

We will start receiving the new aircraft later this year, and we will return and continue to return aircraft which have been on the ground and have deserved 2022 financial year, which saw us increase our capacity by 18 per cent. In the coming fiscal further, we will see an additional 14 per cent.

We have a resurgence for capacity in Air India too. 


Can you kindly shed some light on the delivery schedule? 

Each manufacturer has a different delivery schedule for their aircraft. In some cases, certain aircraft are being delivered a little earlier than the other but it won’t be one is to one where one Boeing aircraft comes in and them the Airbus aircraft comes in. It will come in lots.


What was the company’s idea behind placing such a large order? 

Well, economics is key. If you consider the size of the GDP growth, population, wealthy diaspora, demographics, geographic position, and supply chain realignment, all these factors have created a tailwind for the restoration of Indian aviation to a major position in the growth stage.

From a supply perspective, India has less than 50 widebody aircraft, which is comparable to the size of New Zealand and Singapore. This doesn’t make sense when you look at the opportunity and the scale of the market.

The largest aircraft order in history is an indication of the confidence in the growth potential of this market and also the confidence in what we can bring that is presently lacking. Currently, people travel from India using various modes of transport, but we have not provided non-stop connectivity, quality of service, and reliability to reach their desired destination using our assets.

Thus, part of our transformation is to improve the product so that we can bring back this business to Indian aviation, which will then catalyse the entire ecosystem.


It came as a surprise to many when Air India chose the wide body of Airbus instead of Boeing. What was the rationale behind a sizable Airbus widebody aircraft order?

We purchased planes from both Airbus and Boeing for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s important to maintain a healthy competitive tension between the two OEMs.

Additionally, due to the large scale of our order, we were able to achieve economies of scale and select the most suitable aircraft for each mission in our flight plan, rather than stretching one type of aircraft beyond its utility. Different planes are optimised for different missions, and diversifying our fleet will ultimately optimise our operations.


Does Air India worry that the supply chain constraint will be a dampener in the delivery schedule? Is the company making provisions otherwise?

They are confident that they will be able to deliver the aircraft on schedule. There is a contract tied to the delivery dates but there is no reason and they have every incentive to deliver on schedule too. 


Are you concerned about the pilot shortage? 

In the medium to long term, it is not much of an issue as we are building one of the world’s largest training academies. India has been a significant supplier of pilots to global airlines, but we didn’t have enough competitive airlines to retain them.

In the short term, it is a challenge, but the attraction of working for Air India on both LCC and FSC in the domestic and international long-haul markets, given that it will have state-of-the-art wide-body aircraft from both OEMs, is great. At the moment, there is no other airline in the world that can offer the same opportunity as Air India. Therefore, it is already a significant attraction for Indian talent.


Can you share your strategy for revamping underused or redundant initiatives like the Frequent Flyer Program (FFP) and Star Alliance to maximise their potential?

Yes, in both cases, we have not been doing justice, and clearly, both are a high area of focus. 


Will the airlines still maintain their frequent flyer programme with Tata Neu now involved at the parent company level?

The two have different focuses, with little complementarity. While the former is consumer-oriented, the latter is aviation-focused and serves as a popular redemption programme. It’s not something that is used on an everyday basis.


How does Air India plan to compete with IndiGo, which is the market leader in the low-cost carrier segment, now that it also has a focus on that segment?

I cannot reveal our strategies at this point. However, it is excellent for India to have two professionally-run airlines, with significant size and resources to anchor and drive the ecosystem.

We have a full-service proposition that competes with IndiGo and a wide-body international product that complements it. While we do compete with them in the low-cost segment, the Indian market has enormous growth potential, and we can leverage this together to capitalise on the Indian tourism market’s rising tide.


But they are also getting aggressive with the long haul market with their codeshare with Turkish airlines and possibly flying to the US markets. How do you view that?

Competition is competition and it is a good thing and we take it as competition.