New Delhi/Singapore: Air India’s new chief is betting an ‘open door’ policy will help defuse years of soured relations with the flag carrier’s more than 20,000 staff, paving the way for potentially painful change at the loss-making airline.
Ashwani Lohani, a 56-year-old engineer and tourism bureaucrat with no experience running an airline, describes his job as “the ultimate challenge”.
The 85-year-old state-owned airline is unprofitable, overstaffed and losing market share. India’s aviation market may be the world’s fastest growing, but it’s dominated by younger, nimbler, low-cost rivals such as IndiGo and SpiceJet.
Returning Air India to profit after almost a decade in the red would be a coup for a government that has vowed to cut losses, and whose prime minister built a track record of turning around state firms while running Gujarat. But it will require unpalatable decisions from both a state apparatus reluctant to cede control and from Lohani.
Speaking in his New Delhi office, Lohani says he is starting from the ground up, with Air India’s staff, as he grapples with a record of poor staff discipline, grumpy service and frequent delays.
“People in top leadership positions have a tremendous motivating power which they don’t use,” he said. “If I pat someone on the back and say ‘do good work,’ he will do it.”
Earlier this month, Lohani launched a regular hour-long ‘open door’ session, when any of Air India’s employees, from pilots to flight mechanics and baggage handlers, can drop in.
But company insiders say that has to be the precursor for tougher decisions, including a reassessment of a heterogenous, and costly, inherited fleet, as well as cuts to unprofitable routes and staff, something the government will need to support.
“What does he need to do? The first thing is to tackle the staff issues. There are too many people working in Air India and morale is low,” said one high-level company executive. “There are some talented people in the airline, but also a lot of deadweight.”