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  • Samir Vieira

Air India: Back To Beginning

All is well that ends well. It has been a trauma for many, many years to see one of the worlds best airlines, which was,’ iconic,’ and recognised globally as the ‘ maharaja airline ‘- slowly go down the ‘ brand slide ‘ to a stage where it was the ‘ last resort ‘ airline in recent times, and to be used only when there was no choice, or when choices were limited.

The Air India debacle has taught us many lessons. One is that areas like airlines and hotels are not for government management and control. Government management is better left to general governance covering education, health, defence, et al.

We all know that the larger a company grows, the further it distances itself from the ultimate customer. Even top management of large corporates finds themselves isolated and insulated. Only those who keep in touch with the customer, acquire him and retain him, and therefore succeed. The much larger size of government, therefore, makes it much more difficult to ensure Acquisition and Retention. The late J RD Tata once travelled at short notice to Europe on Air India, and since the flight was full in the upper classes, he travelled economy, as Chairman of the airline- setting a great example to passengers and staff to show that the ‘ customer comes first’. Many years later, the management at the same airline was more concerned about acquiring new aircraft, rather than acquiring more customers.

To my mind, the decline in Air India started with nationalisation. There was a change in culture from the corporate culture to the laissez-faire government culture. There was a change in goals from customer orientation to, top management and employee orientation. Somewhere, somehow, the customer was forgotten. And in that process, discipline got diluted.

Forty years ago, I ran a training program for branch heads of AI, worldwide, in Mumbai. On the first day of the program, a third of the participants came to the session, half to one hour late. The next day I had the room shut from 9.30 am – so latecomers could join only after lunch . There was a hue and a cry. How can senior people be treated like this? On the other hand – how can senior people act like this? Is this the example that they set for their staff, all across the world? Discipline had got diluted. It was now a government job. There was full security of service!

Most of them had also forgotten that promotion had to come by excellence on the job, rather than tenure and number of years. Another reason for the slack and the slide down.

Our past governments have dillydallied for decades whether to continue their hold, or to sell it. The present government has finally taken the bull by its horns. It will be one of its great achievements. And in the process, something very unusual has happened. Normally a company goes down and either closes or is bought out and completely changes its profile. There are examples of Blackberry, Kodak, Nokia and many others, that ruled the roost at one time.

But, in many ways, Air India goes back to its founding entity -Tata Sons – and also remains as Air India. Tata Sons have reinforced themselves to face the big challenge with help from SIA and Vistara. But the challenges are formidable. – a long list of ‘ to-dos ‘ (Today the AI union has already objected to the intended sale.) But this is all captured under the umbrella of a new philosophy.

Put the customer at the centre of your business. This is not easy. Could take a long time. It will mean changes in top management, both attitudes and skills; in employee orientation; in amended offerings and in pricing; in understanding competition and being able to match up to them. We can only hope and wish that Tata Sons will be equal to this challenge. We wish them good luck!

(Walter Vieira is a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants of India (FIMC). He was a corporate executive for 14 years and pioneered marketing consulting in India in 1975. As a consultant, he has worked across the globe in four continents. He was the first Asian elected Chairman of ICMCI, the world apex body of 45 countries. He is the author of 16 books; a business columnist; visiting professor on marketing in the US, Europe and Asia. His latest books are "5 Gs of family Business" with Dr Mita Dixit and "Marketing in a Digital/ Data World" with Brian Almeida. He now spends most of the time in NGO work.)

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