Tatas have work cut out in restoring trust and much more
The obsession of JRD Tata, the founder of Air India, with details is well known. No detail was too small for him, at least not where the airline was concerned.
A letter he wrote to the General Manager (hospitality) of Air India dated May 17, 1966, shows the extent of his micro-involvement. The omelettes, he complained, were overcooked. Perhaps the solution was to undercook them first on the ground and then re-heat just before serving on the flight?
The sweets, served on take-off and just before landing, were also so-so. They tasted like ‘hair lotion’, he wrote. And why, he asked, wasn’t the airline buying pears which were in season at that time rather than making do with offering a fruit serving comprising ‘just’ apples, oranges and bananas?’
In the same letter, Tata directed the General Manager to serve drinks on a trolley, like other airlines, so that guests could choose their liquor. It was this passion, involvement, and commitment from J RD Tata that made Air India a globally recognised brand, symbolising the warmth of Indian hospitality.
A letter written by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in February 1978, while expressing regret over Tata’s exit from the airline (which had happened under her predecessor Morarji Desai), appreciated the ‘meticulous care to the smallest detail, including the décor and the saris of the hostesses’ which he had brought to Air India.
Now that Air India is set to return to the Tata fold once again after decades of (mis)management by the government, will the brand enjoy the same level of interest from the new owners? More importantly, will Air India enjoy a new lease of life?
Sandeep Goyal of the Mogae Group says two of the most important attributes that this generation of Tatas bring to the brand are trust and gravitas. “AI has lost consumer trust and trust is the first thing the Tatas bring to the table. They can restore trust in the Air India brand. Second, they also bring gravitas. Over the years, the core brand Air India has become shabby and C class. This can be corrected by the new owners,” said Goyal.
Brand Air India has fared poorly in recent years as the airline’s performance metrics worsened, delays and flight cancellations mounted, and fliers moved increasingly towards the low cost carriers. Air India has a hub-and-spoke model (connecting smaller stations to hubs and thus offering better connectivity) while the low cost carriers operate point-to-point.
But even better connectivity, a generous baggage allowance, meals on board and wide international connectivity have not helped the brand image. Air India almost always tops the charts in consumer complaints and compensation paid for delayed/cancelled domestic flights. Last year, reports of a rat on board a local flight, which had to be cancelled, intensified the shabby image.
Journalist Vir Sanghvi, a travel and food enthusiast, has been travelling with Air India since his childhood. He says the perception about Air India being great till the early seventies and a dead duck thereafter is an ‘oversimplification’.
“The brand had begun suffering after a global oil price rise led to changing market dynamics in the early seventies. The well-heeled began muttering about having to travel with labourers and such on flights. The old Air India, where only the betteroff would travel, was killed off by the boom in Gulf travel,” said Sanghvi. He believes that the Air India brand lost out as the airline began to be operated by joint secretaries in the Ministry of Civil Aviation who were not interested in the airline’s long-term welfare. “Air India became like any other public sector unit,” he said. Mukund Rajan, former brand custodian of the Tata Group, points out that Air India has had a good reputation over the years for the technical competence of its personnel and the flying skills of its pilots.
“Where its reputation has tended to flag has been its service standards and maintenance and upkeep of aircraft. Customers will certainly expect a sea change here, which requires, inter alia, massive refurbishment of facilities and investment in skills training of the cabin crew, including onboarding of enthusiastic young professionals,” said Rajan.
There was a time in the 1970s, he recalls, when Air India supported the training and development of Singapore International Airlines (SIA) personnel and helped it become one of the best in the world.
“It would be fitting for that investment to be paid back now with help to train a new generation of Air India staffers, perhaps routed via Vistara. Certainly, customers will expect nothing less than world-class performance which the Tatas have already demonstrated at the Taj Hotels which enjoy a reputation for bestin-class hospitality,” said Rajan. The Tata group re-entered the business of aviation by announcing a new airline in partnership with Malaysian airline Airasia in 2013 and later launching Vistara in partnership with SIA.
When Sanjay Singh, a former advisor to the Tatas, asked a DGCA official how to write an application for launching an airline from scratch in India, the official replied: "As the Tatas, you are not expected to take consultancy but to give consultancy.”
Singh passed on this comment to his SIA counterparts. The two sides assembled an inhouse team for filing the application soon afterwards. “Not a sentence in the application which was subsequently submitted to the DGCA was written by a consultant,” said Singh.
A decade ago, the Tatas set the aviation template in India. Now that Air India is back in their capable hands, the brand can breathe a big sigh of relief.