Home/ Opinion / Views/  Maharajah of Air India must change his stance

Anthropomorphic representations of countries are common, of companies far less so, and among the most enduring of the latter has been Air India’s Maharajah. This amiable gentleman with a great big handlebar moustache and feathered turban started out as a brand mascot even before we broke free of British rule, and the world’s single biggest aircraft order being ascribed to him is another feather in that tuft—for longevity. As diaspora lore tells his tale, the endearing Maharajah even acquired an emblematic role to rival the Ashokan crest’s, globally, once Air India’s offices overseas began to serve as ‘help desks’ for Indians in need of information and advice, relieving our embassies of a thankless job. Thank the mascot’s welcome bow, a posture crafted to convey old-world grace rather than deference. To clarify the idea, its conceiver Bobby Kooka took care to dispel rumours of royalty. “We call him a Maharajah for want of a better description," he said at the time, “But his blood isn’t blue." Even the palette used by artist Umesh Rao to catch attention wasn’t. The figure, like Air India’s bottom-line since its 2007 merger with Indian Airlines, was bright red.

To get back in the black, this grand old airline needs a turnaround that may not be easy even for the Tata Group, whose will is reckoned to be sky-high. After all, the carrier began as a Tata launch back in 1932, two decades before it was taken over by the government, and having re-acquired it a year ago, the group must make a go of it as a prestige project. Although Air India has been privatized, some flag-carrying for diplomacy gains, such as the West’s chest-swell over jobs to be created by half a thousand planes ordered from America’s Boeing and Europe’s Airbus, was expected to be kept up. And it has. The size and details of the order, we assume, were dictated by the airline’s revival strategy. Even with projections magnified by an aviation boom as our mass market reaches take-off point, Air India would have to hew out a heyday-like chunk of all traffic that originates in the country just to make its new assets sweat. And to bulk its market share back in search of profits, the brand will have to become a preference pick, not a compromise choice that goes by the generic shrug of “a flight’s a flight." The rivalrous edge it has in airport slots both here and abroad, thanks to a vintage schedule, can be scraped of rust and whetted only if its service acquires a special appeal. Ironically, though, the chivalrous edge it might try to recover by returning to Maharajaic form, as it were, would be a nod to nostalgia more than moolah. As our market bustles with new and first-generation fliers, value delivery largely lies in taking them to their destinations cheaply without delay. The clarity of this focus gave Indigo its success.

Air India will need a low-cost clockwork to underlie all its cabin efforts. To vie with rivals on fares, its operations will need not just their efficiency maximized as they’re merged with Vistara’s, but costs kept as flexible as possible—an aim Tata’s capital splash on firm orders may have gone against—even as it hopes for fuel-bill relief from tax-policy reforms. Since plane seats are perishable items, it would aggressively have to deploy price baits as occupancy assurers, without which it can hardly expect to outpace all others, let alone nose past Indigo in Indian skies. All said, Tata must not treat aviation as a business of airborne hospitality, but one, above all, of cost and time efficiency. The Maharajah must strike a new stance. And stay on his toes.

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Updated: 16 Feb 2023, 10:29 PM IST
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