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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Example of Government mismanagement " Air India airlines ": Analyst, growing complaints and criticism.

When Bob Haygooni paid a midflight visit to a cockpit at his new employer, Air India, he was shocked. The pilots, he said, had completely covered the windows with newspaper to keep out the sun.

“All you had in the cockpit was this yellowish glow, as the light permeated the newspaper,” Mr. Haygooni recalled, saying it was a visibility hazard he had never seen before in 30 years of flying.

But “this was a normal thing at Air India,” said Mr. Haygooni, a former United Airlines pilot who flew for the Indian airline for 16 months. In April 2010, however, he decided that the paycheck was not worth his concerns over what he considered the government’s haphazard approach to running its state-owned airline.

Interviews with more than a dozen experienced pilots hired in the last three years by Air India to work new international routes describe an airline with problems. But theirs are not the only complaints.

Passengers have abandoned Air India in droves, shunning the airline because of its reputation for poor customer service and late flights.

Formerly this nation’s monopoly carrier, Air India has been surpassed by three commercial Indian airlines — Jet Airways, Kingfisher and IndiGo — among those that have sprung up since India deregulated the domestic industry nearly two decades ago. Air India now has less than 15 percent of India’s domestic air travel market, with many empty seats on the flights that do take off.

As a result, Air India lost more than $1 billion in taxpayer money in the last fiscal year. And now there is a growing public clamor for the government to get out of the airline business.

“Instead of throwing good money after bad, the time has come to stand up and say: yes, Air India must be shut down,” The Indian Express newspaper said in an editorial earlier this month. While few government airlines in the developing world have stellar reputations, the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, a research group in Sydney, Australia, singled out Air India as an example of government mismanagement.

“There are other state-owned airlines in other emerging-market countries that have similar problems, but I can’t think of one as bad as Air India,” said Peter Harbison, the center’s executive chairman.

Well-run state airlines tend to be a product of “enlightened and intelligent leadership,” Mr. Harbison said.

He cited Indonesia’s national carrier, Garuda, which once was an airline with heavy debts and a fleet of unsafe old planes that regulators in Europe refused to let land there. But under a businessman, Emirsyah Satar, who was named chief executive in 2005, Garuda Indonesia has been transformed into a profitable company that raised $350 million in a public offering this year.

Spokesmen for Air India defend the airline as safe and say it is working to correct its problems.

And the nation’s new civil aviation minister, Vayalar Ravi, vowed in an interview Wednesday not to close or sell the airline. “There is no question of Air India being shut or privatized,” he said. He said vested interests who “want to exploit the people for their own profit” were behind suggestions that India’s government give the airline up.

Still, Mr. Ravi said the airline had been mismanaged in the past — including the merging in 2007 of India’s domestic and international state-run airlines. “Nothing positive came out of the merger,” he said, and Air India has bought too many planes.

But the airline does “not make any compromises with maintenance and security,” Mr. Ravi said.

Air India’s image was not helped by a recent 10-day pilots’ strike over salaries. It ended with a government pledge to raise pay — but not before the work stoppage had caused cancellation of nearly 1,500 flights and added almost $50 million to Air India’s mounting losses.

Hoping to win back customers, Air India is slashing fares and planning to expand, even though it loses money on 95 percent of its flights. Analysts say the prospect of a fare war threatens to destabilize the entire Indian airline industry, and to erase the previous predictions by private carriers of profits this year.

Even some once-loyal customers are giving up on Air India.

“I think all Indians should just boycott the airline,” said Harjiv Singh, co-founder of Gutenberg Communications, a public relations company with offices in New York and Delhi.

Mr. Singh said he used to fly Air India’s business class regularly. But now he flies Continental’s direct flight to Newark, or one of a host of European carriers that stop in Europe before going on to New York.

Even inside the company, some executives are quietly calling for the end of government control. But Air India is popular with India’s central government because ministers and politicians can demand routes to connect their home states with the capital, New Delhi, even if they lose money.

“I feel like a woman with 1,000 husbands,” one male Air India executive complained, referring to the constant demands from government officials.

As in many other emerging-market countries, India had a severe pilot shortage about five years ago, as the number of passengers and airlines grew faster than the country could churn out new pilots. Airlines here responded to the pilot shortage by hiring expatriates, including hundreds from the United States, where — until the rules changed in 2007 — commercial pilots were forced to retire at age 60. In India, as most everywhere else, the retirement age has long been 65.

For many of those who joined Air India, the culture clash has been severe. Dozens left before their three-year contracts expired. Of the 186 foreign pilots hired since April 2007, Air India has just 36 left, the company said.

Pilots interviewed for this article expressed safety concerns about basic operations at Air India — particularly its training procedures, which many said were not adequate for teaching the hundreds of new pilots the airline needs for its expansion. Some, like Mr. Haygooni, spoke freely. Others insisted that their identities not be revealed because they said the industry did not reward whistle-blowers.

Air India is “just so far behind the ball I don’t know how they will ever catch up,” said Alexander Garmendia, 64, who joined Air India in 2009 after retiring from American Airlines. He trained at Air India’s headquarters in Mumbai for six weeks, but said he left in part because he was worried about safety.

One safety concern noted by the interviewed pilots was that veteran Air India captains often left cockpit doors unlocked — a practice most carriers around the world abandoned after the 9/11 attacks in the United States. They also said captains tended to leave the cabin during flights, leaving co-pilots alone for long periods. They said pilots’ smoking in cockpits was also common.

Mr. Rattan acknowledged that such things might occur, but “to say it was a trend would be to stretch things too far.”

Expatriate Air India pilots said they were most worried about an inadequate training system that they said created co-pilots with excellent book knowledge but little real-life flying experience.

“The biggest problem is if I have a heart attack, this kid isn’t going to be able to get the plane on the ground,” said one current Air India pilot, who has more than 25 years of commercial airline experience.

At Air India, some pilots say, young co-pilots get few hands-on opportunities in the cockpit. Veteran captains handle the landings and takeoffs, often leaving co-pilots little to do but operate the radio and fill out paperwork.

Most of the pilots interviewed for this article recalled incidents when they let young co-pilots take the controls — a common practice in America and Europe to give inexperienced pilots a chance to learn — but then had to seize back command of the aircraft to prevent a disaster.

An Air India spokesman in Mumbai, K. Swaminathan, said in an e-mail that India’s airline regulator did allow assisted takeoffs and landings by co-pilots, when they were flying with commanders who were authorized to do such training. But “as the airline is in the midst of a fleet expansion, all commanders may not have the necessary experience to allow co-pilots to conduct supervised takeoffs and landings,” he said.

Air India was free of major accidents for a decade — until a May 2010 crash in Mangalore that killed 158 people. The captain, a Serbian, came into the landing too high, and did not abort it when he should have, the Indian government’s investigation report said.

The co-pilot, the report found, “failed to challenge any of the captain’s errors.”

Just four days later, Air India had another serious incident, when a co-pilot, while adjusting his seat, accidentally knocked the controls off their settings as the captain was heading for the bathroom. The plane dropped 7,000 feet before the captain could return to the cockpit and right it.

A government investigation concluded the co-pilot “probably had no clue how to tackle this kind of emergency.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

( Source: The New York Times )


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