We could have handled the delays better, says Air India CEO Campbell Wilson

  • On 31 May the Directorate General of Civil Aviation issued a show-cause notice to Air India for inordinate delays of at least two international flights. Two days later, an Air India flight from Delhi to Vancouver took off nearly 22 hours late.

Anu Sharma
First Published5 Jun 2024, 01:57 PM IST
Air India chief executive officer Campbell Wilson
Air India chief executive officer Campbell Wilson

Following long delays, cancellations and technical glitches involving several Air India flights in the past week, chief executive and managing director Campbell Wilson said the airline could have better handled this ‘unusual combination of events”.

On 31 May the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) issued a show-cause notice to Air India for inordinate delays of at least two international flights – AI 183 from Delhi to San Francisco on 30 May and AI 179 from Mumbai to San Francisco on 24 May – and its failure to take care of passengers. Then on 2 June, an Air India flight from Delhi to Vancouver took off after a nearly 22-hour delay. More than 50 passengers of this flight protested against the airline inside the terminal.

Also read: Air India to operate as merged entity from FY25; no Vistara brand by year-end

In the case of the Delhi-San Francisco flight, Wilson said an auxiliary unit that was meant to power the plane’s air-conditioning had stopped working. The alternative, a jet starter unit, was unable to generate enough power to start the aircraft’s engines. This was partly due to the extreme heat in Delhi, where temperatures have approached 50 degrees Celsius this summer. 

A few hours later, the aircraft returned to the bay for some angry passengers to deplane. When it started to taxi again, the replacement jet starter unit also proved ineffective, forcing the plane to return once again and offload more passengers.

‘Our people need to handle that better’

Wilson told Mint on the sidelines of the 80th annual general meeting of the International Air Transport Association, "... by the time you get to San Francisco, they're not going to be on duty, so you won’t be able to offload the passengers. Then, you have to cancel the flight. There are a lot of circumstances that lead to this – technical issues with the aircraft, technical issues with the ground handling units that are supplied by third parties, the capability of the air conditioning at the airport, the temperature in Delhi, and the wish of some people not to travel." 

"Our people need to be able to handle that better. So, whether it's better compensation or better communication, there are things that we can learn to do better. But, it is an extremely unusual situation," he added.

Also read: Air India gets DGCA show-cause notice over two international flight delays and 'failure to take care of passengers'

In the case of the delayed Delhi-Vancouver flight, Wilson blamed state-run Air India Engineering Services Ltd (AIESL) for delivering an unfit aircraft. The airline was forced to cancel the flight after an inspection revealed that the plane lacked a nozzle, essential for filling drinking water.

"I guess we have a concern that there's not the kind of performance, discipline and focus on quality that there should be. This is the evidence of it. Whether or not third parties are letting us down, whether we’re letting ourselves down, ultimately it's the customer that has to experience it," he added.

The Tata Group acquired Air India under a government-led divestment exercise in January 2022. The airline unveiled a five-year transformation plan called Vihaan in September 2022. 

Over the next 18 months, Air India hopes to kickstart its in-house line-maintenance and set up base maintenance facilities for narrow-body and wide-body aircraft in Bengaluru, in partnership with Singapore Airlines Engineering Company Ltd.

Also read: Delhi airport declares full emergency after Bengaluru-bound Air India flight with 175 on board catches fire mid-air

"We're seeing glimpses of the future with the A350. That's the new Air India. It is already flying to Dubai. Next it will go to Europe. We need a particular certification to be able to fly to North America, which we expect to have by the end of the year," Wilson said. Retrofitting work on the 43 legacy wide-body aircraft will also begin next year and will take 18 months, he added.

In February 2023, Air India placed an order for 470 aircraft, including 400 narrow-body ones and 70 wide-body ones and 40 from the Airbus A350 family. IndiGo, India’s largest domestic airline, also placed an order for 30 aircraft from the A350 family in May. 

"I don't know what they (IndiGo) are proposing to do. It will be interesting to see. But we're very clear on what we want to do. What they do with the interior could be entirely different. Just because you have the same tube doesn't necessarily mean you have the same interior, service, menu or entertainment," Wilson said. Air India will use its wide-body aircraft on international routes with the aim of providing world-class service and non-stop connectivity from Indian metros to the key overseas markets, he added.

Merger troubles

Two months after it acquired the state-owned carrier, the Tata Group announced the merger of Air India with Vistara and Air India Express with AIX Connect (formerly AirAsia India). As a part of the transaction, AirAsia Bhd sold its 16.67% stake in the airline to the Tatas for 155.65 crore. "We're aiming [to complete these] towards the end of the year. We're still awaiting the ruling from NCLT in both cases. After that, we can start optimising the networks and make sure we're not duplicating flights," he said.

The Air India Express merger saw agitated cabin crew taking sick leave en masse in May, leading to hundreds of flight cancellations for the airline over several days. At Vistara, a stretched roster and unhappy pilots reduced the airline’s network capacity by 10% in April. It’s expected to be restored to full capacity by July or August.

Also read | Mint Explainer: What does it take to build an aviation hub?

Wilson said in the case of Air India Express, a "very small number” of crewmembers were aggrieved as they used to fly mainly to destinations in the Middle East for the erstwhile state-run airline. "Now, with the merger, they fly domestic as well. Earlier they didn’t have to sell on board, but the low-cost model [requires this]. Low-cost cabin crew also share rooms. [Earlier] Air India Express crew did not. We are aligned to be the same as IndiGo, Vistara and the former AirAsia India. The reality is that we operate in an industry that is competitive. We empathise and try to help people through the process. But ultimately it takes two to tango," he added.

On Vistara's merger with Air India, Wilson said he was aware of Vistara’s loyal customers who have concerns about the airline’s service after the merger, and their Club Vistara points.

"Air India stands by Vinod's (Vistara CEO Vinod Kannan) promise that all the points will be respected, the status will be respected. By moving into the new Air India programme, you'll have the Star Alliance network to earn and redeem points. We will also continue to refine Air India’s frequent-flyer programme," he added.

Vistara, formed as a 51:49 joint venture between Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines, commenced operations in 2015. The brand Vistara will cease to exist once the merger is complete and Singapore Airlines will hold a 25.1% stake in the merged entity.

"The Vistara fleet will continue to operate even if it has different colours. We hope that all of the things that Vistara already has, we can build into the new Air India. We are absolutely committed to making the new Air India at least as good as Vistara and, over time, even better," he said.

(The reporter was in Dubai at the invitation of IATA)

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First Published:5 Jun 2024, 01:57 PM IST
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