The 'invisible' foreign hand

Despite having a significant and ever growing volume of traffic, one of the disappointing aspects of India’s aviation history remains the fact that India is yet to produce a successful international carrier out of the country. Indian traffic has been cornered by airlines like Emirates, Singapore Airlines and a host of other international players, making this one of the biggest failures of India’s aviation sector.

In the 1930s, Air India started out with an impeccable service and was well poised to become the first successful carrier out of India. So well run was Air India back then that it is said to have inspired what became Singapore Airlines in 1972. In 1953, Air India was nationalised but the airline was doing well right up to the late 1970s. It is after JRD Tata stepped down as the airline’s chairman — and a series of events post this — that the airline began to falter for one reason or the other. The merger of Air India and Indian Airlines was, many argue, the final nail in its coffin and the rest as they say is history.

In 2005, India’s premier private airline Jet Airways started international operations. Again, with an excellent product on offer, the airline was well poised for global success. Had the airline’s founder Naresh Goyal not been paranoid about competition at home and taken a series of wrong calls to ward it off, he could have made Jet Airways the first successful international airline originating from India. But it was not to be. 

Although it has refrained from a formal announcement, it is well known that IndiGo, the country’s largest private airline, had intentions of offering long haul routes on its network. In May 2018, news reports said that the airline would soon be adding wide-bodied aircraft (which were expected to be ordered in July 2018) to its fleet and flying to various European cities including France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the UK, among others. It hasn’t yet happened. Even at the time, it wasn’t clear what kind of service the airline would offer on board. Would the flights to France and the UK be a no frills, joyless rides with passengers purchasing food while jostling for leg-room?

To my mind, the airline has made at least one decision straying from its original path — always a dangerous step as far as low-frills airlines go. Eighteen ATRs have been added to its stable and it no longer remains a single fleet operator. 1,027 flights on ATRs are already being offered weekly to 27 destinations in India. 

Jet’s closure presents an almost irresistible opportunity to fill the gap by going international. Although so far, international routes have been added using its A320s, it is quite possible that it will add other wide-bodied aircraft to its stable at some stage. In other words, the model will get more and more complicated. 

What made IndiGo what it is today — a single fleet, no frills airline — is a partnership that worked perfectly. The American partner Rakesh Gangwal brought into the company his years of experience in aviation, valuable global contacts and a strategic worldview that Rahul Bhatia did not have. Bhatia brought to the table everything Gangwal could not: the team to manage operations at home and the ability to deal with the unique Indian operating environment — be it the aviation ministry or the DGCA. 

That’s why I believe the spat between the two promoters could not have come at a worse time. Besides the fact that the two owners are too distracted to make its international foray a success — while ensuring the ATR and narrow body operations run smoothly too — the airline would need the strategic inputs that Gangwal brought to the table now more than ever before. Running a good, efficient and profitable airline domestically and running a good, efficient and profitable airline globally are two very different things. The passion, commitment, vision, understanding and drive that the two founders brought to the table may be hard to replicate with hired managers. 

I’m not saying it can’t still be done but it will be even more of a challenge. The loss is not just for the carrier and its shareholders but the country as a whole. Just when IndiGo looked poised to be the first successful global carrier of Indian origin, a set of circumstances have come in the way. If I was superstitious or an Indian civil servant, I’d say it’s the invisible “foreign hand” at play.