Mumbai: Air India Ltd may lose a second key hire made as part of its turnaround plan, with chief training officer Stefan Sukumar set to step down this week amid controversy over recruitments made by chief operating officer Gustav Baldauf, the Austrian appointed to helm the state-run carrier’s recovery.
This comes soon after the departure of Pawan Arora, chief operating officer of the airline’s low-fare subsidiary Air India Express, on 11 February.
Air India’s spokesperson declined to comment.
Sukumar is to submit his resignation this week and has written to the management to relieve him from his duties, according to two top Air India executives, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Both Sukumar and Arora were appointed on 28 September, despite objections raised by the airline’s board, as reported by Mint on 29 September.
“Sukumar had decided to give up with the increased turbulence in Air India. With DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) asking for documents to support his flying hours and ongoing controversies, Sukumar has decided to move on. He may return to Lufthansa,” said one of the Air India executives cited above.
Sukumar, former training chief of Deutsche Lufthansa AG, declined to offer any comment as he “was not permitted to speak to the media”.
Chairman and managing director Arvind Jadhav, who took over in May 2009, sought to recruit talent from outside the company to help turn around the loss-making, state-run carrier, currently in the midst of a Rs 10,000 crore government-backed rescue plan.
The airline posted a combined net loss of Rs 12,740 crore in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 fiscal years. Consulting firm Deloitte Consulting India Pvt. Ltd and SBI Capital Markets Ltd are jointly working on debt-restructuring and turnaround plans. The carrier has a total debt of Rs 40,000 crore.
Sukumar’s departure could deter others from seeking jobs at Air India, according to K. Sudarshan, country head of London-based EMA Partners International Ltd, a global executive search firm.
“Without privatizing Air India or involving professionals in managing the business, it will be tough to get the airline out of the red,” he said. “With the private sector-public sector divide existing, the Air India system won’t accept a highly paid private executive. On the other side, as a natural fallout, the private executive will be having limited operating freedom.”
Given such constraints, the airline should try and find bureaucrats with the ability to do the job, he said.
Air India is currently in the process of selecting a candidate to become its chief strategy officer.
Arora had been asked to leave after it emerged that he had been removed from DGCA, where he had been seconded as flight operations inspector from budget airline IndiGo, days before the Air India board clearance, as reported by Mint on 12 February. 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.
The airline’s performance has however been improving amid the controversies, according to a third Air India official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
The airline also didn’t support the new recruits adequately, according to this official.
“The load factor, operating profits and on-time performance have been getting better. Air India Express was also doing extremely well,” he said. “Suddenly, things are getting derailed. Sukumar was not given a personal computer or a mobile phone.”
Air India’s spokesperson declined to comment on this.
Sukumar’s exit will come just as Air India is in the process of launching its new passenger service system—which will see a unified flight code, AI, and a new website—and as it prepares to join the Star Alliance global grouping of airlines.
Sukumar had said an interview to Mint on 28 December that the airline was in talks with some of the world’s best hotel chains to train its employees in an attempt “to bring back some of the once legendary shine of Air India’s on-board service”.
He also said that the airline had renegotiated training contracts and lowered total training costs by 29% from the previous fiscal year. He had also said at the time that the controversy over his appointment was over.
Sukumar said he had been interviewed for his job by Prashant Narain Sukul, joint secretary, ministry of civil aviation, and Air India independent director Fali H. Major.
“They found me suitable to be the chief training officer of Air India and they also wanted me to look after the Star Alliance project,” he said at the time.