I was minding my own business and buying groceries when a familiar looking gentleman of a certain vintage walked up to me in the aisle stocking detergents.
He reintroduced himself and I sheepishly trotted out my regular excuse, “Terribly sorry. I didn’t recognise you… I am having a senior citizen moment”. Without waiting for me to finish making a critical detergent decision, he launched into an engaging monologue about what ails Air India. He was once a top honcho at India’s national carrier — the gorgeous one with the beloved Maharajah as its mascot. He mentioned he had a great deal of well-documented material on all that has gone wrong with what was once a world-class airline and which lies in tatters today. Briefly but strongly, he made an impassioned plea to make Air India a cause celebre before it was stripped still further of its few remaining assets.
The worthy gentleman did not shy away from naming names, and said he had enough dope to nail the venal politicians behind the airline’s downfall and scandal. He emphatically stated that what the public is being fed about the strenuous, behind the scenes efforts to “save” Air India was nothing more than unadulterated hogwash. There were far too many powerful people ready to dance on the Maharajah’s grave… and they would make sure no salvage operation would work. I promptly forgot the other items on my extensive grocery list as we exchanged coordinates and talked about connecting soon. I have his card. And I believe him when he says he is ready to go public. His despair was palpable.
Story number two: On a recent flight to Jaipur, I was seated next to a dynamic, chatty couple (oh ho — there goes my much needed power nap, I groaned). We were on a short Air India flight, and I was prepared for the worst (bad reputations travel at supersonic speed). Surprise, surprise — it turned out to be a smooth, welcoming and wonderful flight with excellent on board service from an efficient, smiling crew. “Wow!” said the couple, sipping tea after a delicious, hot meal. A young flight attendant overheard us lamenting the sorry state of Air India and jumped into the conversation, but only after refilling the tea cups of passengers. He had tears in his eyes as he mentioned just how bad things are: “Imagine our plight during Diwali… we received our salaries on the 24th of the month! We were helpless and didn’t know what to tell our families. We love our jobs and we love Air India. We are loyal to the airline that gives us so much! We feel proud to say we work for Air India when we travel internationally. Which is why we feel so sad to see what is happening. Nobody is interested in saving Air India. Everyone wants to finish it off. Corruption has killed Air India.” With that said, he was back on the job, politely serving passengers.
His attitude was vintage Air India. And I was so relieved that it still exists — at least in a few dedicated employees. It is, of course, very hard to ignore reports of on-board scuffles, regular no-shows by crew members, sudden sick leave absentees, drunk pilots and co-pilots, stories of sexual abuse and nepotism, apart from a cavalier attitude thrown at paying passengers. Despite all of this, regulars insist there was no better service than the one offered by Air India on its non-stop flights to America. Killing Air India will serve zero purpose. Resurrecting it makes little business sense. Where are the takers? Running an airline is a high-risk proposition. It’s a wonder Air India pulled it off and continues to fly till today!
Soon after both these brief encounters, came the news of the debt-laden airline’s auction scheduled for November 15. Thirty-eight real estate assets will hopefully attract decent bids to add to the kitty. Properties in this online auction include flats in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru and Mangalore, besides land and holiday homes across India. There are 100 properties worth between Rs 9K to 10K crores for sale, with 30 properties already sold for close to Rs 1K crore.
The reserve price this time ranges from Rs 15 lakhs to Rs 8 crores. Some of these properties remained unsold at a previous auction, leading the adviser/consultants (Cushman and Wakefield) to lower the reserve price. For those of us who are not in the same orbit, all of this seems a bit of a farce, besides being downright tragic, if not blatantly criminal. People in the know say they saw it coming since 2012, when Air India was told to raise Rs 500 crores annually from monetising real estate. Really? Is that the only solution to salvage what used to be our nation’s pride and joy? Or were vested interests grabbing what they could at bargain basement prices? Why was nobody interested in restructuring and saving this once fabulous airline that dominated the skies and made every Indian’s chest puff up with pride? Who can believe the bogus story that Air India is beyond saving? If the government is transparent and sincere about resuscitating Air India, it should first nail the culprits who cold-bloodedly destroyed it: Yes, former ministers and top netas included. Get to the bottom of the planned and imminent murder of our beloved Maharajah — a murder most foul! Air India staffers should know desh unke saath hai!...