Even as it struggles to cope with its Rs 40,000 crore debt, Air India has been hit with fresh troubles after its recent hires from the private sector have come under intense scrutiny by the government. The airline may actually see the exit of the newly appointed Air India Express chief operating officer (COO) Pawan Arora.
“We have asked the airline to reconsider the decision and sought a termination of Pawan Arora,” said an official in the civil aviation ministry. The official, who did not want to be identified, added that the ministry had already shot off a letter to this effect to the airline.
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A second official at the ministry, who too did not want to be named, confirmed the move.
Arora’s dismissal, if it happens, is certain to raise questions about the entire recruitment process and the role of chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav. “Whatever are the issues, they will be taken up (by) the board in the next meeting,” said Jadhav in response to a query on Arora. The next meeting of Air India’s board is scheduled for 11 November.
Arora declined comment.
Air India has hired at least four top-level officials, including Arora, COO Gustav Baldauf, Stefan Sukumar as chief of training for Air India, and a former corporate communications executive from the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group Kamaljit Rattan as chief information officer.
The appointments were cleared despite objections raised by some board members in the meeting held on 28 September in Mumbai on the methodology and process followed, as Mint had reported on 29 September.
The government has decided to intervene. On Monday, the newly appointed independent directors on Air India’s board met the principal secretary to the Prime Minister, T.K.A. Nair.
The aviation ministry, however, denied that this was connected with the scrutiny of key appointments in the airline. “Independent directors of Air India paid a courtesy call on principal secretary to PM today. It has nothing to do with the ministry of civil aviation,” an aviation ministry spokesperson said.
The new directors charged with overseeing a turnaround at the airline include Anand Mahindra, vice-chairman and managing director of Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, Amit Mitra, secretary general of industry lobby Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Ambuja Realty chairman Harsh Neotia and former air chief marshal Fali H. Major.
“The private sector board members cannot absolve themselves on their part in it,”said Air India’s retired executive director Jitender Bhargava, calling the appointments a decision taken in haste, which must be thoroughly investigated. “... And notwithstanding the huge salaries being doled out, they had failed to get the best candidate with requisite qualifications and experience to be able to deliver.” Bhargava said the appointments “should be immediately cancelled” and the entire episode investigated “at all levels of decision making, be it the ministry, the board or the top management”.
Arora was removed from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) where he had been seconded as flight operations inspector (FOI) from budget airline IndiGo, days before the Air India board clearance. DGCA removed him from the position as it found that he was not qualified for the post, according to an internal letter reviewed by Mint.
“Capt. Pawan Arora has been appointed as FOI in the office of the DGCA on secondment basis vide letter No. AV Flight Safety/Secondment-AS dated 18.9 2009,” director general Nasim Zaidi’s office wrote in a letter dated 17 September to DGCA’s chief flight operations inspector (CFOI) H.Y. Samant. “It is observed that he has never been approved as examiner. Therefore, Capt. Arora does not fulfil the laid down qualification as per the relevant CAR (civil aviation requirements). Accordingly, he was not eligible to be approved as seconded FOI. The matter has been viewed seriously by the director general. CFOI is directed to clarify as to under what circumstances Capt. Pawan Arora has been approved as FOI without fulfilling the laid down qualifications with seven days of receipt of this memorandum.”
A week later Arora’s name was removed from DGCA’s website.
According to the minutes of the Air India board meeting of September reviewed by Mint, Arora was qualified to be the best COO for Air India Express as he “held managerial posts with India-based airlines, besides he had close associations with DGCA”. The minutes also show that, in response to objections raised by some board members, Air India claimed that there was “no adverse report either by DGCA or IndiGo where informal inquires were made”.
Yet, the airline noted, “Since some question have been raised, a formal reference will be made to DGCA.”
Chennai-based safety expert and CASAC (civil aviation safety advisory council) member Mohan Ranganathan says even Sukumar’s appointment may be questionable as he is an instructor on A300 and A310 aircraft, both of which are either being phased out or are not in Air India’s fleet.
DGCA rules specify the chief of training of an airline should be a “DGCA approved examiner on type (of aircraft). In case the operator is having mixed fleet operations, the training in charge shall be DGCA approved examiner on aircraft type of highest category in its fleet”. Air India has a fleet dominated by Boeing 777s and Airbus A320s.
In departure from practice, Sukumar’s position was also not advertised by Air India. According to the minutes, the “(post of) chief of training was not advertised because it was very specialized in nature” and to successfully turn around “fast-track approach to supplement the leadership team” was seen necessary.