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Air India’s issues are due to years of neglect; we need to change our thinking: Ashwani Lohani

Mumbai, Shahkar Abidi: The new chairman and managing director of debt-ridden national carrier Air India, Ashwani Lohani, strikes a calm pose inside his spacious office on the 22nd floor of the seafacing AI tower at Nariman Point. Though to a keen observer, the 1974-built now-near-empty tower may seem to mirror the airline’s rise and fall over the decades, Lohani is a man of the present. Stressing that whatever happened to the airline is in the past, Lohani tells dna’s Shahkar Abidi that to bring a positive change in the near future we need to act and live in the moment. He speaks on the various issues ailing the airline and what he is doing to bring a turnaround in its fortunes.

Ashwani Lohani

Ashwani Lohani

Air India has some major labour-related issues with the employees often complaining about poor treatment from the management. This has affected their performance and, as a result, the airline seems to be suffering. What have you done to change the situation after taking over the job?

I strongly believe that our employees are more important than clients. In any organisation, the human resource department is an important one. It’s a continuous process and I am dealing with the issue on an uninterrupted basis.

AI is suffering a lot due to poaching of its pilots by rival airlines. How do you plan to tackle that?
It is unethical on part of rival airlines to poach our pilots, particularly after we have trained them and spent a lot of money on the same. These airlines just pay the bond amount. So, we will be raising the bond amount and keeping it between Rs50 lakh and Rs1 crore.

But then what stops AI from doing the same (poaching) in this cut-throat environment?
We, as a government airline, can’t do that. If we could, we would have given a befitting reply to them (rival airlines indulging in poaching).

It’s been around three months since you were appointed to this post. That’s enough time to get an understanding about the situation or the problem with Air India. Could you elaborate how deep is the problem?
The issues with the airline are a result of years of neglect. Like any under-performing government company, Air India has problems mainly at the administrative level. Therefore, the only way to correct the situation is by changing our way of working and thinking, otherwise positive change is not possible.

Just about a month after taking over, you asked SBI Cap to come up with suggestions to fly the airline back to 2018-19. The earlier projected deadline was of 2021-22. Please elaborate on what basis are you talking about lowering the target year. Is it practical or overconfidence?
I said we expect the turnaround to happen not later than 2018-19. It is possible to bring about change by running the airline like a business entity. A six-year plan is a long time to predict, but a three-year period can be foreseen.

Around 20% of AI’s fleet remains grounded at any given point of time, when the industry norm is about 5%. How do you plan to change that?
Yes, that’s again a problem area and we are working on it. We want to bring it down to 10% in the next two to four months, so that the maximum possible number of aircraft can be in air at any point of time.

Only two international and six domestic routes on which AI flies are profitable. How are you trying to make the other routes profitable?
We have been continuously working on route rationalisation so that the ones making losses can be eased out and those having high demand can get more focus.

Aircraft-to-staff ratio in AI is 1:120, which is above the global standard of 1:100. This too is a worrying factor for turning the national carrier profitable. On the other hand, the airline is seeing an exodus of employees, those who are set to retire in the near future; that will surely hurt. How are you going to face the situation?
Our aircraft-to-staff ratio has come down to 1:113. With respect to tackling the exodus of employees, the airline aims to hire more and also take people on contract.

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