It is impossible to feel optimistic about Air India without completely suspending rational judgement. Every time the state-owned airline looks like it might be slowly turning its fate around, it runs into trouble, usually self-inflicted. The latest round of flight cancellations by the airline will be particularly damaging; India’s flyers are coming to detest uncertainty, and they will be willing to pay a greater-than-ever premium to ensure that the flight they’re booking at least takes off. The pilots’ strike that has caused the cancellations is a reflection of two things: first, the inability of the airline’s pilots to realise the perils that the company is in, and their addiction to blackmailing the government. And, second, the incomplete and ill-judged nature of the merger between the erstwhile Indian Airlines and Air India. The strike is led by the Indian Pilots Guild (IPG), whose leader is, oddly, a legislator for the Nationalist Congress Party, which ran the ministry when many of the problematic decisions about Air India were taken. The IPG represents those who worked at Air India before the merger; they don’t want pilots who used to work at Indian Airlines to be given the retraining necessary to fly the new Boeing 777 Dreamliner. That such petty questions are being used to drive their employer ever deeper into debt is a reflection of the utter hopelessness of expecting that Air India will ever survive as a state-run company in a tough competitive marketplace.
So what does Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh plan to do about it? He accepts that the government has no place in a service industry. He accepts that the merger was problematic. He told CNN-IBN that “the days of a national carrier are gone”. All these statements are indisputable by any but the most ideological, the most optimistic, or the most compromised. If Mr Singh truly believes these statements, then the path before him is clear: he must investigate and allot responsibility for Air India having been brought to this pass – because it has, after all, soaked up vast amounts of public money – and he should abandon all pretence at revival of the airline as it stands and, in the process, help prevent a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money already committed ostensibly to revive the ailing airline. Dismissal of the pilots, followed by a clear plan towards privatisation of the airline’s assets, is the only way to ensure the government doesn’t throw good money after bad.
However, the question of accountability should not be forgotten. Mr Singh said that he does not intend to “indict past managements”, and that “something has gone wrong, but we are not enquiring into that. CAG [the Comptroller and Auditor General] does some enquiring, PAC [Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee] is looking at those reports”. This is not enough. The ministry, too, must isolate the source of the poor decision-making – the purchases of aircraft, the merger – that helped Air India turn itself into a sink for public money. And his brave words on the anachronism that is a “national carrier” must be followed up with a clearly argued call for a path to privatisation. The commitment of government funds – Rs 30,000 crore – is unacceptable anyway; for an enterprise doomed to failure if it is not privatised, it is an unpardonable waste of taxpayers’ money.