As the Tata-owned Air India seeks to expand its footprint in India, by seeking permission from the Competition Commission of India for a merger with Air Asia India, it is important for the airline which suffered the depredations of state ownership for decades, to focus as much on basics as it does on acquisitions and consolidation. For news of Air India’s application to CCI came together with the report of a Directorate General of Civil Aviation admonition to the airline, for the shabby condition of one of its aircraft.
But it isn’t just one of Air India’s aircraft that needs repairs to its cabin; the airline’s ageing fleet generally looks and feels tired. The fact that is rapidly sinking in with travellers is that three months after the Tatas took charge, the changes, if any, have at best been superficial, and not substantial as many had expected. Adding a non-vegetarian meal option for economy class passengers does not really help when aircraft are in poor shape, fittings do not work, and when the airline’s response to unforeseen events ~ such as rescheduled flights ~ is as chaotic as they used to be when the government ran Air India.
Indeed, many frequent travellers have noted that in critical areas relating to service, Air India may even have slipped since late January, when the Tatas took over. The airline’s spotty website and app continue to startle passengers, with pre-booked seats using the “Seat Select” option mysteriously being reassigned, and with boarding processes being as chaotic as they were. While it must be admitted that three months is a short time for sorting out problems that are as deep-rooted as Air India’s, it is disappointing that there isn’t a single area where significant improvement has been noted. With the resources available to it, the Tata group could at the least have fixed bugs in the airline’s website, or even substantially raised the quality of onboard services. Neither really has happened.
Of course, it helps the Tatas that they control the only two full-service domestic airlines operating in the country. While the no-frills Indigo has a major share of air passengers, most of the rest fly on SpiceJet and Go First. In essence, therefore, only Air Asia from the Tata stable figures in the no-frills category. This means that while the efficiently run Vistara earns points for the quality of services it offers, Air India is allowed to languish despite the immense loyalty the brand commands and the extensive international connectivity it offers, both directly and via its membership of Star Alliance.
Jet Airways is said to be planning a return to Indian skies, and an airline promoted by business magnate Rakesh Jhunjhunwala is set to take off. Thus, the window of opportunity for a privatized Air India is shrinking. The Tatas would be well advised to pull up their socks quickly.