Air India COO concedes lack of clear plan in T3 migration

Air India COO concedes lack of clear plan in T3 migration

New Delhi: Air India’s chief operating officer (COO) Gustav Baldauf has written to the airline’s board ahead of a key meeting, conceding the absence of a clear plan for migration to its new operational hub, Terminal 3 (T3) in New Delhi, that led to chaos last week, but defending his absence at such a critical time.

At the board meeting on Thursday, the Austrian-born COO is also scheduled to make a presentation on the expensive hires made by the airline that have come under government scrutiny this month.

The board will decide whether the appointments should be cleared or kept in abeyance.

Baldauf was in April appointed COO by the flag carrier at an annual salary of Rs3 crore to help turn around the airline weighed down by Rs32,000 crore of accumulated losses and debt. Since he assumed office, Baldauf has been spending considerable time on foreign visits, said a person familiar with the matter on condition of anonymity, and he wasn’t around to oversee the migration of Air India to its new operational hub either. The switch to T3 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport was a key pillar of Air India’s operational turnaround plan and his absence was questioned by critics.

In his communication to the board, Baldauf conceded that there had been a lack of “proper long-term planning" for the switch to T3 and promised to put a plan in place.

The COO was out of the country, meeting Air Canada officials in Montreal and executives of global airline grouping Star Alliance in Frankfurt. Air India plans to be part of the Star Alliance grouping by 2011.

Baldauf said he had written to the board to explain why he wasn’t physically present when Air India migrated to the new hub, and “then I had to explain why I was in Canada talking to Star Alliance". He said his communication was also triggered by criticism in the media and rumours.

Baldauf agreed that Air India’s chief pointsperson for its Star Alliance ambition, executive director T.K. Palit, could have been deputed to travel for the meeting given the more challenging T3 transition at hand in New Delhi.

“Of course," he said, “but let’s say the relationship with Air Canada was not the best, so we had to go there to build the relationship."

A board meeting set for last week had to be cancelled because of escalating problems at T3 where Air India passengers had to cope with cancelled and delayed flights.

Air India’s appointments of Pawan Arora as COO of Air India Express, its low-cost international subsidiary; 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, at hefty salaries have, meanwhile, been opposed by the aviation ministry and the airline’s independent directors.

The directors 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; former air chief marshal Fali H. Major and Gulf-based businessman Yusuff Ali.

Arora is a former Jet Airways (India) Ltd and IndiGo airlines executive, and Baldauf denied any link between his appointment and former Jet chief executive officer Wolfgang Prock Schauer providing him (Baldauf) referrals when he (Baldauf) was hired by Air India.

Arora’s appointment followed the crash of an Air India Express plane in Mangalore in May that left 158 people dead in India’s worst air disaster in a decade.

“The hiring agency had asked for references at different working levels, from India and abroad," Baldauf said. “Not just them, there were five-six referrals, including those from Austrian Airlines. Nobody knew at that time, he (Arora) will later apply for the COO position in AI Express....that there would be a Mangalore crash and we will need to bring a new team..and he will have to (take over as COO)." If the board disagrees, he said, Air India will need to “find somebody else (to replace Arora) but then start (hiring) from scratch again".