Friday, December 5, 2008

Dealing with Challenges at Air India

Air India has been going through a major transformation over the past two years. It has been inducting new aircraft for the first time in well over a decade, has introduced new long-haul flights and in-flight products that are getting decent reviews, has merged its operations with the former Indian Airlines, is modernising IT systems and is preparing to join the Star Alliance. In reality it is all long overdue, as Air India had been stagnating for so long. Chairman and managing director Raghu Menon is the first to admit that the change process should have started long ago, but as he puts it: "It is better late than never." India's air transport market has itself seen massive change over the past five years, since Air Deccan was launched as the country's first low-cost carrier. Its success led to the launch of many more airlines, which in their fight for market share brought airfares down sharply, resulting in huge growth in demand. At the same time the government opened up air services agreements to allow foreign airlines to operate more services to India, and began modernising airport infrastructure at last. The new players put immense pressure on state-run Air India and Indian, which had long been regarded as employment machines with apathetic staff, ageing aircraft and outdated in-flight products. The plan was to create a true network carrier operation to help the combined entity compete effectively with the new players. Air India had until then focused on international services while Indian focused on the domestic market, with some international services to Southeast Asia and the Middle East. "The merger is one of the best things that has happened. It has made us an airline of competitive scale in the region, in the South and Southeast Asian region. The main gains that we anticipated have turned out to be quite realistic, particularly the network synergies and the synergies in operations, and despite all doomsday predictions the human resource merger has also been of great ­benefit," says Menon, who only became ­chairman and managing director earlier this year after moving over from the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Air India still has real problems and some rival airlines say privately that its change process has largely been cosmetic without addressing the real issues of ­improving the balance sheet and cutting staff ­numbers. Officials at Air India feels other way costs have been reduced due to the enlarged entity's increased purchasing power. Offices abroad are being merged, and there has been a significant revenue boost which has exceeded all expectations. The feed is the major positive development. Its trying to ensure that the traffic from the domestic network feeds into two major hubs of Delhi and Mumbai, from where most of our international operations take place, so that passengers travelling abroad as well as passengers coming to India are able to get good seamless connectivity. The route duplication is almost completely removed. Also the duplication in offices and personnel in various locations has been removed, helping a big saving in cost. Financial benefits are impossible to quantify as the carrier does not release earnings at timely intervals since results must first be ­presented to Parliament. The last published accounts were for the year ended 31 March 2007, when Air India posted a loss after ­several years of profitability. It admits it is still losing plenty of money. Insiders say it lost more than Rs20 billion ($406 million) in the last financial year and the civil aviation minister himself was recently quoted as saying losses could hit Rs30 billion this year. One of the assurances which the government gave at the time of the merger was that there would be no retrenchment of employees. Another major problem is with information technology, particularly the lack of a single reservations system. This means that although only the Air India name is now used, the old Indian Airlines code remains. Passengers booking online, for example, still need to choose their flights from one of two websites. Changing this is a priority and a new booking system should be in place by the middle of 2009 from vendor EDS which will allow the two airlines to merge fully under the Air India code. Pushing it to speed up the implementation is the fact that it is due to join the Star Alliance in 2009. Air India will be the first Indian carrier to join an alliance and this should give it an edge over its competitors at home, all of which are struggling financially as a result of increased costs, overcapacity and a recent drop in demand. The tougher times have led to major changes in the operating environment and over the past two years there has been a wave of consolidation. Aside from the Air India-Indian merger, Jet Airways acquired the former Air Sahara (now JetLite) and Kingfisher acquired the former Air Deccan.These three groups now control 77% of the market by passenger numbers. Air India is looking for injection of equity,as its equity base is very low. The second proposal is for a soft loan. Air India holds a lot of promise and should not be underestimated. It is an airline which has performed for over 75 years, and with the transformation that is taking place it will perform even better.

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