New Air India by 2025-end: CEO Campbell Wilson

Air India CEO Campbell Wilson. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
Air India CEO Campbell Wilson. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)


  • The airline plans to refurbish its entire fleet by the end of 2025, establish a low-cost stronghold in local routes

Air India plans to establish a low-cost stronghold in local routes, alongside the broader goal of revitalizing the Tata group-owned airline by refurbishing its entire fleet by the end of 2025, chief executive officer (CEO) Campbell Wilson said.

“We’re very confident that we’re in the right place for full service being long-haul, medium-haul international. Domestically, it’s quite clear that the market is most appropriate for low-cost, which is why we have Air India Express that will form the bulk of our domestic flights as well as some short-haul international," Wilson said in an interview on Monday. “But the positioning of Air India Express is very definitely going to be low-cost. We won’t be putting business-class seats into the aircraft," he added.

The Tata group acquired Air India and its low-fare unit Air India Express in January 2022 under a government-led strategic divestment programme. Later that year, the Tata group announced a merger between Air India and Vistara, and between Air India Express and AirAsia India. The two mergers are currently underway.

“There will be a full-service presence on metro-to-metro and on routes that we believe have significant international connectivity. But the market is clearly most conducive to low-cost domestically. So, Air India Express will be the majority of our domestic operations," Wilson added.

To that end, the airline plans to induct most of the 400 narrow-body aircraft from its existing orders to the Air India Express brand while refurbishing its older fleet of more than 100 aircraft. The airline will invest $400 million to retrofit 40 wide-body Boeing B777 and B787-8 aircraft by 2025.

“We’ve restored the in-flight entertainment system availability in business class and first class to more than 99%. But the sad fact is that the seats and the in-flight entertainment were about as old as the iPhone. So, we’re doing the best we can in keeping things functional until such time that we can do the retrofit of the aircraft, which starts next year by July-August," Wilson said.

While Air India placed an order for 470 aircraft, including 70 wide-body aircraft, in February, it also plans to take 36 aircraft on lease, out of which 21 narrow-body planes are set to join the airline’s fleet by May. In addition, the airline expects to induct six leased Boeing 777s and six Airbus A350s from its 470-aircraft order by March 2024. These aircraft will mainly serve Europe and North America.

In the case of Vistara and Air India, the merger has recently received a nod from the Competition Commission of India and is expected to be completed by the end of March.

“We’re in no hurry to make a change (to Vistara brand). We’ll continue working on elevating Air India to the point where it is as good or better than Vistara. And then we can take a call based on what the public thinks about the respective airlines and how we can bring them together," Wilson said.

The company will further start working on planning the network more closely between Vistara and Air India once the merger process receives approvals from “a few foreign jurisdictions."

“For example, rather than fly completely in parallel to Frankfurt or London, we can space the service out so that the customer has a better spread of schedules and therefore more choice. So, it will be operated as two separate businesses, but in a complementary rather than competitive sense," he added.

The focus on improving the product for the international segment comes amid efforts by the government to expand opportunities for Indian airlines in serving travel to and from India. The share of Indian airlines in overseas traffic to and from India has increased to 44% in FY23 from 40% in FY19, according to data from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.

“The diaspora remains very large, growing and increasingly wealthy. You’ve got India as a key node in the global supply chain. As we build the connectivity, as the airport infrastructure improves to facilitate this, it will support the development of India and Air India as a much stronger hub carrier," he said.

The airline, with its current primary hub in Delhi, plans to bolster its secondary hub in Mumbai and increase focus on southern India.

On the emerging duopoly in the Indian aviation market, Wilson said that the consolidation of a fragmented, under-capitalized, semi-private, semi-government environment is a step that many countries have undertaken to create a more stable, more profitable environment that allows the maturation and ultimately profitable expansion of the industry.

“We’ve seen a procession of airlines enter and then collapse in the Indian market. And that’s burnt a lot of travellers, a lot of travel agents, a lot of companies, and a lot of employees. And it’s clearly not a sign of a healthy ecosystem," he added.


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