Quick Take

Time to rethink sale of Air India

| Updated on March 24, 2020 Published on March 24, 2020

Air India has more value than many in government would like us to believe. It certainly shouldn’t be privatised in a rushed fire-sale just to balance the government’s books

Air India has always had its huge fans and vociferous detractors. In recent years, as its losses have mounted, there’s been an increasing clamour that it should be sold to a private operator and cease to be a drain on the exchequer. The concept of a national carrier, goes the argument, belongs to another, distant era when air travel was a novelty. Today, it’s argued, we’ve moved into the age of dime-a-dozen low-cost airlines.

And yet, time and again, at times of crisis, it’s Air India (and, before that, the erstwhile Indian Airlines) that is called on to undertake tough and occasionally hazardous rescue missions that are in reality far beyond the call of duty. To their eternal credit, the staff have never backed away from even the most gargantuan challenge. In the 1990s both Air India and Indian Airlines were called into service to evacuate 110,000 Indians from Kuwait (via Amman) over two months when the Gulf War erupted.

This feat earned Air India a place in the Guinness Book of Records. In 2015, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Air India between them evacuated 4,640 Indians from Sana’a when the Saudis attacked Yemen. Now, Air India is swooping into disease-stricken regions like Wuhan and, most recently, Milan to bring back Indians and other South Asians.

So it seems particularly egregious — in fact a disgrace to our society — that Air India had to issue a media statement decrying, “vigilante resident welfare association and neighbours” who have, “started ostracising the crew... or even calling in the police, simply because the crew travelled abroad in the course of their duty”.

The statement adds that the children of staffers are not being allowed to play with neighbours’ children and even says: “We don’t want to be treated like untouchables.” IndiGo has also evacuated smaller numbers from places like Jeddah. The airline reports that its crews, too, are facing similar difficulties in neighbourhoods where they live.

Coronavirus is a global-scale catastrophe and we all need to take precautions. But that makes it all the more important to stick together and show kindness towards one and all. Irrational and positively cruel behaviour to airline staffers who are doing their jobs and taking risks in the line of national duty shames us all.

Botched merger

In the cacophony about how Air India is a giant loss-maker and must be got off the government’s books as rapidly as possible, there are few queries about how the losses were ratcheted up. A botched merger between Air India and Indian Airlines was one part of the problem and that was a decision taken by the Central government on which the two airlines were hardly consulted. A series of other excesses were committed, few of which were the fault of the two airlines.

India has unique difficulties that other bigger nations don’t always face. We are a large country with a huge number of expatriates who have emigrated to the most far-flung corners of the globe. Other countries could hire one or two planes to bring their nationals back at times of emergency. We need a fleet of aircraft because of our numbers. Sometimes we can call the IAF, but there are situations where military aircraft cannot be used.

Our private airlines can be called in. But in Air India, the government has an easy resource that can be called upon. Selling it will be almost out of the question in the next year, with airlines around the world heading towards bankruptcy because of the coronavirus pandemic. It might even be time to consider whether Air India should even be sold. It certainly shouldn’t be privatised in a rushed fire-sale just to balance the government’s books. It has more value than many in government would like us to believe and should be treated as such.

Published on March 24, 2020
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