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Authors: Jitender Bhargava

The Descent of Air India

BOOK: The Descent of Air India
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This is the story of how a dramatic set of events ran aground an airline that once ruled the skies; a behind-the-scenes account of how submissive and indifferent chairmen, self-serving employees and union members, and a step-fatherly government, all led to Air India’s downfall. The Descent of Air India elucidates how the airline failed to adapt and change with the times but preferred, instead, to bask in its past glory.

Impractical expansion plans and thoughtless use of the airline’s resources contributed to the company’s financial collapse. Candidly written by Jitender Bhargava, The Descent of Air India is the tragic tale of how one of the country’s finest public sector undertakings was brought down and the people and events that were responsible for its descent.



Jitender Bhargava is a respected voice in the aviation sector. Having spent more than two decades with Air India, of which thirteen years were as its executive director, he knows the issues and problems of the airline and the aviation industry better than most. Bhargava since retirement from Air India, has been writing for leading newspapers and commenting on civil aviation issues on electronic media. An alumnus of the University of Delhi, Bhargava often speaks on the subject of corporate communications and other management-related issues.

Copyright © 2013 Jitender Bhargava

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, or any Information storage or retrieval system, without prior permissionIn writing from the author.

[email protected]

2302 La View, Jacob Circle, 595 Bapurao Jagtap Road, Mumbai - 400011. India

This book is dedicated to my parents
Vidya Prakash Bhargava and Kamla Devi Bhargava



1.  Take Off
2.  Clipped Wings
3.  Living in the Past
4.  All the Government’s Men
5.  A Flicker of Hope
6.  Change of Guard
7.  A Tale of Lost Opportunities
8.  The Politics of Flying
9.  A Saga of Financial Mismanagement

10.  Flight from Reason

11.  Troubled Alliance

12.  The Critical Years

13.  Murder or Suicide?

14.  Looking into the Crystal Ball

The Appendix


prologue: front row

THE TRAGIC AND rather alarming diminution of a globally cherished brand such as Air India has been the subject of many debates and discussions in the Indian media. And I have often been asked by television anchors and newspaper editors, ‘Air India had been going down for a long time. Why were steps not taken to prevent the decline? You knew what was happening!’

It was not just the media that was doing the questioning. At social gatherings, industry seminars and corporate get-togethers, I found the same issues being raised by friends, colleagues and professional acquaintances, some of whom I had not met in years. Former minister of civil aviation Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who has been a co-panelist on several television debates, questioned the propriety of my pointing fingers at the government and the political and bureaucratic machinery and highlighting systemic shortcomings of Air India when most of the controversial decisions that led to the decline were taken while I was in the airline. Praful Patel, also a former minister of civil aviation, when asked to comment on my criticism of the way Air India was managed, said on national television, ‘A person after retirement can say whatever he wants.’

My answer to all my querulous questioners has always been the same: ‘I was never a silent spectator to the way the airline was being managed. Although I was part of the management, I was never party to the decisions that destroyed the airline and on numerous occasions had drawn the management’s attention to the problems. But being an employee, I had to ensure that I did not transgress the boundaries of the organisation’s code of conduct.’

But questions—right or wrong, good or bad, relevant or irrelevant—force you to think. And this one set me wondering whether it was time to put down the Air India story. It was not only me and my role in Air India, however, that I was concerned about. The airline’s downward drift has few parallels in Indian corporate history and was therefore a story worth telling. People had a right to know—and wanted to know—how the airline that was once the pride of the country had ended up thus.

I had, in fact, anticipated the barrage of questions that was coming my way. In August 2009, with a few months to go till my retirement, I wrote to the former chairman, V. Thulasidas, expressing my anguish at the way the airline had plunged into an abyss. He had on several occasions averred that he would make Air India one of the top five airlines in Asia, and yet, the airline had suffered the most under his leadership. My letter said, ‘With my retirement only a few months away, I am bound to be asked by people outside the organisation as to how could Air India sink to such depths even with me around considering that I enjoy a public profile of being a competent officer.’ Mr. Thulasidas did not reply to my letter, but the questions came pouring in.

An organisation as large, as venerated and as loved as Air India deserved a book. But I asked myself—as perhaps would many readers—‘Why should I be the one wielding the pen?’

The more I pondered over the issue, however, the more obvious it was that I had to be the one telling the story. Not just because I had been a part of the senior management as executive director of Air India for 13 years—far longer than had any of my colleagues—but also because I had read the signs of decay in the airline early on. Unlike most of my colleagues, I had refused to hold my silence over managerial indifference and incompetence in Air India, over the way the unions were holding the airline to ransom over petty issues that were harming the airline and about the airline being treated as a pawn in the game of politics.

Through letters, personal conversations and at every internal forum, I had raised my concerns. I could never be a part of anything that brought personal rewards and glory but was detrimental to the company. Nor could I turn the other way when others flouted rules. I also never hesitated when it came to taking tough decisions or exploring innovative initiatives to help the airline shore up its revenues or cut costs. This set me apart from most of my colleagues in Air India and also worked against me. It led to numerous unceremonious transfers. Promotions were delayed and even denied on one occasion, and instead of being commended, as would have been the case in a professionally managed company, I was singled out for retribution. Interestingly, even though I was targeted for my outspokenness and the changes that I initiated, my decisions were not overturned by the chairmen. The airline benefited from the innovative methods that I introduced although I was banished from the departments under my charge for the same.

Air India had been my
for more than 20 years. When I joined, it was still considered as one of India’s most iconic and revered brands. It was respected globally and was perceived as an airline with impeccable service. It was also a source of great national pride because those who had been associated with the airline, those who flew by it and even those who did not considered Air India to be the unofficial ambassador of the country. By the time I left in January 2010, the airline was a shadow of its former self. The product had lost its shine, and the airline was on the brink of a financial catastrophe. Air India’s fall from grace was not only disheartening but also demanded complete disclosure on behalf of all those who had patronised the airline and had believed in the brand. The sequence of events that led the airline into tailspin needed to be chronicled.

‘What would a book achieve?’—I asked myself. To begin with, it would help apportion responsibility, accountability and blame to its rightful owners. It was not enough to pin the politicians down at every debate and encounter as to the destructive role that they had played in the fall of the airline;it was also critical to bring out the manner in which Air India had been betrayed by its own people. It was important that the entire account be narrated in an impartial voice.

I had joined Air India in 1989; young, impressionable and keen to make a mark. My previous employment was with Coal India, where I had spent 12 years, two of which were under the feisty leadership of M. S. Gujral. Mr Gujral was an inspirational chairman and fearless in the way he dealt with the coal mafia and belligerent unions who revelled in striking work in the Bengal and Bihar coalfields. He took on the company’s problems head on and he showed me, early on in my professional life, the value of standing up for what was right. Before Coal India, I had worked with The Hindustan Times Group as a journalist, besides having written frequently for various other newspapers and publications.

By the time I moved to Air India, ideals such as sincerity, thrift, outspokenness and abhorrence for corruption had been deeply embedded in my professional and personal code. Also, having been cast in a journalistic mould, thanks to my exposure to the profession in my early working life, I was an avid observer of events as they unfolded within the organisation and was deeply averse to a culture of silence and sycophancy. I asked questions, raised issues and did not take things at face value or believe something simply because my superiors had said so. My loyalty was to the organisation and not to the incumbent chairman, be it at Air India or Coal India. This was not considered prudent behaviour by my colleagues at Air India. So quite naturally, I was treated as a rank outsider in my initial years, and later, as one who could not blend into the culture of Air India—even more so, because I was not an internal appointee to the position that Air India had been forced to advertise as there had been none suitable to be promoted from within or transferred from another department. My appointment was thus a rare instance of an external candidate being brought in to fill a senior position through an open advertisement. Over the years, there have been some isolated instances of outsiders making it to the senior management—but through the back door, either at the behest of politicians or the incumbent chairman.

Being from outside the system gave me a unique overview of the way affairs were managed at the airline. It was an environment vitiated by personal ambitions and interests overriding those of the airline. The reasons publicly articulated for justifying a particular decision were also, more often than not, vastly different from the latent agenda being pursued by the chairmen/managing directors either of their own volition or on behalf of their ministers.Everyone seemed to be working towards their personal goals and missions, while the interests of Air India receded to the background.

I was not able to adapt. Apart from raising uncomfortable issues whenever the opportunity arose and wresting the initiative from vested interests, time and again, I also followed a standard practice of expressing my views, making my disagreements known and offering suggestions in writing to the incumbent chairman/managing director. My letters sought transparency and accountability; they also tried to caution the management and drive home the need to bring about a sea change in attitudes and work ethic in the wake of mounting competition.

Unfortunately, my letters were not acted upon. The team at the top and my colleagues were uncomfortable breaking their silence on these issues; everyone was more at ease maintaining the status quo. These letters have stood me in good stead, however, as they are the reason I am able to set down the story of Air India and its decline over the years. They are priceless as a documentation of my efforts to do things differently in Air India. They are the reason I can hold my ground when I tell people, ‘I was never a silent spectator in Air India.’

The book, I hope, will do two things: First, it will help people understand how one of India’s finest public sector undertakings was brought down and the people and events that led to its descent. Second, it will answer all questions about my role in the airline because my story was tied with that of the airline. What I have tried to do is recount the sequence of events as I saw it, without bias, fear or favour. While I have no regrets at having aligned my priorities and loyalty with that of the airline and not the people who managed it, I do bemoan the fact that I will always be perceived to be part of the management that took decisions or preferred to do nothing when it should have. I will also never be able to rid myself of the regret that an illustrious brand such as Air India was allowed to fall upon hard times.

BOOK: The Descent of Air India
3.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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