One is not better

Any idea about a possible Air India-Indian Airlines merger must consider fallouts

MR Sivaraman Chennai

Union Minister for Civil Aviation, Praful Patel, made an announcement on February 20, 2006 that Air India and Indian Airlines (IA) would be brought closer to form an even more formidable entity in the future. He also added that a comprehensive civil aviation policy would be outlined. All his half a dozen or so predecessors announced civil aviation policies but none implemented any of them. The only exception was Arif Mohammed Khan who one day asked the author and the secretary civil aviation AV Ganesan that he was tired of Indian Airlines crew members constantly holding the airlines and the government to ransom on pay and perquisites and wanted a solution immediately.

The author and the secretary informed him within two days that the only way out was to allow private carriers to operate and that under the existing laws only air taxi operation could be permitted. He said whatever it was, other carriers should be allowed. He consulted the then Prime Minister who readily agreed and a statement was made in Parliament. Within a few weeks, private air taxis took to the air and the private sector was allowed to operate over Indian skies. That has been the only successful aviation policy that got implemented with dramatic results of convenience to Indian air passengers.

Patel must be appreciated for the facelift he has given to the Mumbai airport within a short period and for the courage displayed in confronting the Airports Authority of India (AAI) employees in regard to privatisation of airports. He should have learnt a lesson from this episode and from that of the merger of the National Airports Authority (NAA) and International Airports Authority of India (IAAI). They still function like oil and water. You talk to any officer of the AAI and he will tell you that "it concerns IAD" that is the international airport division. Even now they have two directors one for the domestic airport and one for the international airports.

In the case of Air India and the Indian Airlines the merger does not bode well as there will be a struggle for supremacy and for the goodies of foreign allowance. There was a rule in Air India that when a junior pilot flew and a senior remained at home he was still paid a flying allowance. Mercifully, the 20-odd tax-free allowances, which the airline crews were drawing, have been put an end to on account of the insistence of the revenue department. Has the government agreed to pay anybody in government including a Supreme Court judge salary at international levels? Only the airlines crew gets salaries and allowances at international rates because they frequently held the government and country to ransom before the airlines succumbed to their pressure.

How many would willingly travel by these national airlines given a choice? Is it possible to have synergy between the vastly different crews of the IA and the Air India, which the minister has talked about? Unfortunately, persons who may not be able to understand much about aircrafts and airports and how they are operated head the committees that the ministry appoints to look into the affairs.

The present statement of the minister is again a reflection of the pressure of the flying crew of IA to get on to the foreign exchange allowance bandwagon in the name of synergy of operation whatever it may mean. When once the merger takes place they will demand training on Jumbo 747 aircraft, which the pilots of the Air India will resist. I recall a pilot of Air India who was once deputed to assist an accident enquiry insisting that he should be trained to fly the type of aircraft involved in the accident. As he was about to retire at that time and there was a demand for pilots who could fly that aircraft in Singapore, he wanted to ensure his post-retirement job like many others do in government also. No doubt the request was rejected. The engineers of the IA will demand training on Air India aircraft so that they also share the benefits and a struggle will start.

The internal IAAI/ NAA syndrome in the AAI has not died down even after over a decade since they merged. Mr. Patel and his advisers in the civil aviation ministry should give careful consideration to all these issues before they take any decision on the merger of the two national airlines.

The author is former Director General Civil Aviation