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‘We’ll restore Air India to its glory’

Ashwani Phadnis | Updated on January 27, 2018 Published on August 15, 2016

ASHWANI LOHANI Chairman and Managing Director

Air India Chairman and Managing Director Ashwani Lohani recalls his first flight with the airline and his plans to get it back to its glory. Excerpts from an e-mail interview with Ashwini Phadnis:

What are your earliest memories of flying Air India?

I think it was in 1991. Travelling to Frankfurt on a 747 was an experience I still cherish.

What were your first thoughts when you were appointed CMD?

I felt privileged. At the same time, I was aware of the challenges, given the financial burdens, HR issues and the lack of a roadmap. However, being aware of Air India's illustrious past, its strengths and the potential of Air Indians, I was confident that we had the ammunition to achieve excellence, and restore the old glory.

AI was earlier about luxury travel. How would you like to shape it: as an airline of the masses, for the classes or a profitable one?

Flying was once limited to the privileged, but it is becoming a part of life for others too. The government has taken steps to make flying affordable, accessible and comfortable for the common man. With the thrust on regional connectivity, suggested capping of fares and a slew of other pro-passenger measures, air travel is now for everybody. Air India has also structured its fares and operations to suit the budget of the common man. At the same time, we are the flying ambassadors of the country and we will give the finest luxuries to our premium passengers in the first or business class. So, Air India should be an airline with the ideal mix of luxury travel and budget travel.

What are your plans for the airline?

We plan to induct 100 planes in the next four years. We will expand globally, adding new destinations like Washington, Madrid, Nairobi, Copenhagen and cities in South Africa in the coming months. In the domestic sector, we will strengthen regional connectivity through our Connect India Mission wherein we are starting or reviving routes in Tier 2 and 3 cities with Alliance Air, making air travel more accessible. These smaller cities have no connectivity and we want to get the first-mover advantage.

What accounts for AI’s poor shape and what have you done about it?

The biggest reason for the downfall of the airline was the merger of the erstwhile Indian Airlines and Air India. Both carriers are total opposites of each other: they had different work cultures, areas of operations, working conditions, entitlements and so on. The merger led to massive discontent and complicated HR issues. The merger was done without any objective in mind. The subsequent demerger of the ground-handling and engineering units complicated matters even further. The huge number of aircraft that Air India was asked to buy also didn't help.

With operational profitability having been achieved in 2015-16, we aim to post net profits by 2018-19, three years ahead of the turnaround plan targets. Yet, there is a debt burden of over 50,000 crore that needs servicing. The ban on recruitments is also a concern. While some debt restructuring will be needed, we do not intend to seek any additional financial help from the government beyond the equity infusion already sanctioned. We are also committed to improving Air India.

Published on August 15, 2016
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