So where does Dutta, 67, fit in? IndiGo said Dutta's responsibility would be to build a five-year business plan. However, people aware of Dutta's capabilities see him as a contender for the top job. "The executives that IndiGo has brought in are all experts in their own domain. They are so busy doing their daily work, like planning new destinations, improving revenue or ground services, that none of them has time to have a top view of the airline, seeing it as an integrated function. A CEO has to go to the ground, talk to pilots and boost the morale of the ground staff. Probably, that's where Dutta's experience fits in," says an industry executive.
A global high-flier, his resume can only be matched by his employer -- Rakesh Gangwal -- among Indian airline executives. It's a list of rapid achievements: Schooling at St Edmund's, Shillong; B Tech from IIT Kharagpur; a few years at Voltas; Harvard Business School in 1980; first job in the US with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. In 1985, he joined United Airlines and rose to be president in 1999.
Dutta, however, would hardly call his stint at United a success. The global aviation industry was facing a turmoil post the 9/11 attack. Passenger sentiment was at an all-time low. United faced the brunt of it. In December 2002, the airline filed for bankruptcy and Dutta was forced to quit after it notched up losses of over $2.1 billion. He was also not popular with the airline's union as he had suggested strict cost-cutting measures.
That's when he thought of returning to India to implement, as he described in one interview, "the understanding of Harvard Business Review
and teachings of Patanjali, the Indian philosopher who codified yoga".
It all began during the Bharatiya Janata Party government's tenure when he got a call from the Government of India. The request was simple: Could he fly down for a fortnight into India, interact with Indian Airlines
and Air India executives, and give a solution to what could be done to make things better.
Dutta flew down to India, had detailed meetings with the top brass of the two airlines and gave his recommendation in a fortnight: Merge the two.
By then, the news
that Dutta might return to India spread like wildfire. Naresh Goyal of Jet Airways called him from London and invited him to make a trip to the city. And while on a visit to Kolkata for his nephew's wedding, Sahara boss Subroto Roy called him up and flew down to the city to have a chat with him.
According to Dutta, his interaction with Roy was only about the teachings of Hindu philosophy, and he got hired as the CEO of Air Sahara.
His former colleagues describe him as a person who was hands-on with every department of the aviation business. "He believed in delegating responsibilities but never forgot to take stock of them. One day, he would be with the sales team. Next day, he would be frequenting an airport, meeting staff there. He even took interest in very technical details of the aircraft," says Kuldeep Kalra, who worked as director of flight operations at Air Sahara.
At Sahara, his biggest achievement was to develop the hub and spoke model of the airline with a base in Hyderabad. However, it didn't bring commercial success as Indian airports were not capable of serving as a hub.
"One day, he told us that the airline needed a new model as the number of flights with poor occupancy had increased significantly. He propagated the hub and spoke model where all the aircraft would meet at Hyderabad at least once a day. Nobody in Indian aviation had implemented the hub and spoke model then," says a former Sahara employee, adding that Dutta's propensity to rely on western business techniques can be a drawback. "I would like to think that the promoters of IndiGo have some plan in mind about him. However, what works in the West does not always have the same effect here," he said.
Sources aware of the plan said that Dutta would initially be given a team with executives from various departments such as network planning, revenue management and airport operations so that he can draw up a plan. "As he develops chemistry with the department heads, we may gradually see him moving into the role of CEO," said a person on condition of anonymity.
The challenges are aplenty as the carrier, with a 40 per cent market share, goes through a transformation in developing itself as a global airline. Due to a fast pace of growth, its yield and occupancy in flights have been poorer than closest rival SpiceJet, and the top management has had a tough time convincing analysts about its business plan.
It is also planning to foray into long-haul operations with flights to Europe. "International expansion is tricky. It either makes you rich or drains cash and the routes have a longer gestation period. It's important to plan well and know when to pull out. Dutta's experience in building a global network will come in handy," says an executive of an airline who was part of the team that launched Sahara's London flight with wide-body planes.
Experts said that Dutta would bring in that extra expertise which IndiGo's top executives may be missing due to the aggressive expansion plan.
"Indigo is so driven on maintaining aggressive expansion with high on-time performance that it may be missing the external dynamic relating to technology, digitisation, innovation, consumer behaviour, regulations and policy. This induction, along with some more external experts, will help," said Kapil Kaul, CEO (South Asia) of aviation consultancy firm CAPA.