When the masks fell off

“Crisis doesn’t build character; it reveals it” Denis Leary, American actor, producer, writer.

As the Covid-19 crisis takes its toll on humanity in general and the economy in particular, winners and losers, givers and non-givers, stories of hope and (many more) of despair are emerging through this incomprehensible tragedy. While calamities of this nature take a toll on society, it also often reveals one’s true character. Masks and shields are dropped and what you really are is visible for all to see.

As an aviation writer, I am intrigued as I watch the interaction, handling and messaging between the upper echelons of airline management in India and their staff and how the crisis revealed their true character, strengths and weaknesses.

As the lockdown brought flights to a halt countrywide, the airline sector braced itself for the bad times ahead. Airlines started to look at ways of keeping their heads above water even as revenues hit rock bottom. Salary cuts — like in many industries — were inevitable.

Mumbai-headquartered Go Air with a “devil may care” attitude was the first to jettison its employees, announcing leave without pay almost right from the word go. Barring a few engineers (required to keep aircraft in working order) and the lowest grade level staff, nobody was paid, leading to a huge amount of bad blood that played out through social media, detailed letters and WhatsApp exchanges that many journalists were privy to. The poor handling of staff led several analysts in the sector to conclude that nobody could accuse the promoters — the wealthy Wadia group — of having any kind of “long-term vision” for the airline. Employees maintained that the airline’s management appears “singularly disinterested” and this has been amply demonstrated during this crisis. Staff that remains on the airline’s rolls is only out of compulsion (airline job market in Mumbai has shrunk dramatically), not choice.

Delhi-headquartered SpiceJet dithered from imposing severe cuts to a more politically correct stance. It decided to pay a minimum amount, regardless of flying hours, to all its commanders (co-pilots and crew received a lower minimum amount). Despite this benevolent act, commanders expressed disappointment, remaining more suspicious than mollified although they confirmed that an attempt was on to ensure everyone got an opportunity to clock in some flying hours as soon as the resumption happened. Most staffers were of the view that SpiceJet would survive the crisis, more a testimony to their faith in the CMD’s survival instincts than in the inherent strength of the business.

Meanwhile, the airline displayed its true character — a survivor against all odds — by turbo charging its cargo business. Three Q400s were quickly converted to freighters and the airline transported everything from medical supplies to lychees and even 425 kg of diamonds for Surat merchants! It also obtained permission from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation for drone trials.

While Air Asia India announced cuts and refused comments in its usual defensive manner, Vistara moved in an expected and measured fashion, announcing graded pay cuts that left almost 70 per cent of the staff unaffected. Air Asia India’s prospects in fact appeared to improve, thanks to the crisis, as rumours of rivals going down gained ground.

The star that has emerged during one of aviation’s worst crisis is market leader IndiGo. The airline’s decision to continue to pay commanders and most of its staff a substantial portion of their usual monthly emoluments has won it more in loyalty points than it probably anticipated. In many previous columns, I have argued that IndiGo’s handling of pilots and crew has been one of its weaker spots and the relationship has, during less stressful times, appeared rather fraught. Strangely, it has taken a crisis of this magnitude for it to reach one of its highest points.

Through this Covid crisis, I detected more than a grudging respect from the airline’s staff, commanders and co-pilots. A few commanders openly praised the management’s dealing, arguing that they had been both clear and transparent in their communication. A pilot who recently got his command (35 years, nine years of flying experience) and flew for the first time post lockdown on June 7 was excited that he “flew for IndiGo and no other”. The airline’s handling has lent credibility to its claim of being a long-term player in the sector, following up its actions with its words.

Meanwhile, Air India announced the kindest cut (we foot the bill!) — a 10 per cent reduction across grades. Pilots continued to complain about long-held grudges and the management blundered along, confident that it would weather this storm, just as it had many in the past. Covid-19 be damned, it’s business as usual for the Maharaja of the skies.

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