Every time there is a strike by the employees of Air India-mostly it is pilots-waves of indignation arise across middle-class India. Stories of harried flyers at airports are followed by promises of “tough” action by the management and the government; some pilots are sacked, some suspended and in the fairness of time, the strike peters out. All this while, the airline continues to sink.
Much has been written on the subject-the doubtful competence of the management, the outrageous demands of the pilots and a civil aviation ministry that neither wants to relinquish control over the airline, however indirect, nor has any clue on what to do with it.
If one could say, Air India has now acquired an incumbency problem of the kind that ails our politics. The incumbents are too well entrenched and the entry barriers into the “business” too high for outsiders to come in. The plunder by incumbents ensures that the system as a whole is ground to dust, slowly but surely. Some of the demands made by the pilots, as highlighted by The Indian Express on Sunday, are of this nature. The pilots and other employees enjoy the kind of privileges that are unheard of in any private airline. The number of free “passages”, or free return tickets for “family” is one good example. Employees managed to define “family” in such a manner that the definition comes close to that of “clan”. The management is scared of changing it for fear that employees will strike if their freebies are curtailed.
But why blame the pilots and employees alone. Surely, the management has a role to play in understanding and quelling any discontent. Whatever happened to the firm’s human resources department? That is not all, after a near continuous drip of taxpayer money as equity infusions, the airline has not managed to turn a corner. If anything, its state of finances resembles a black hole. Again, the management-the shuffling of chief executives notwithstanding-has all the attributes of an incumbent. It can’t be scared into improving its performance. The only way now to save the airline is to privatize it.
Can the state-owned airline be salvaged? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org