NEW DELHI: Delayed, truncated salaries for years had made Air India employees realise long ago that the government will not keep funding the Maharaja indefinitely and that many of them are staring at an uncertain future. Given the massive Rs 1- lakh-crore financial albatross around its neck, not getting even a single bidder in 2018 came as no surprise to them. Their worst fear was ending up like Alitalia that had to be shut because Italy did not privatise it in time. And the best hope: a turnaround like Lufthansa, KLM, Swiss or British Airways when they transited from government to private ownership.
Now as the airline heads for a homecoming to founder Tata Group, there are two distinct sets of employees. One sees a bright future for AI and themselves. And others who cite the recurring losses of AirAsia India and Vistara since launch, and wonder whether the group has so far been any different from the government in running airlines profitably during re-entry into the business less than a decade back.
“Successive governments did a terrible job of running, or great job of ruining, AI and Indian Airlines. The two airlines simply could not take on competition as they were run by political masters and clueless managements with a few honourable exceptions. Now there is a ray of hope that Tatas will eventually put in place a team of best domain specialists drawn from a global talent pool and ensure AI gets its rightful place under the sun,” said a senior pilot.
While not differing with this pilot over suffering decades of mismanagement as a PSU, a longtime employee said: “This is a case of a loss-making entity (Tata JV airlines) taking over another another mega loss-making entity (AI). If government let clueless bureaucrats run AI, Tata is yet to boast of a crack aviation team of the kind that Rahul Bhatia has built at IndiGo due to which full service Qatar Airways has for years been requesting a stake in the budget airline,” said the staffer.
Every set of employees has its own anxieties. Cabin crew, for instance, remains worried if the not-so-young ones will be retained for too long in the privatised AI. To be sure, most foreign airlines have a mix of youth and experience (read not so young) cabin crew members.
Employees have been asked to vacate AI housing colonies within six months of a new owner taking over. Their PF (provident fund) worries were taken care of with the government promising to meet any shortfall when their trusts’ fund is transferred to EPFO. Healthcare could be continued to be provided by CGHS.
“We did not have a bright future had AI not been privatised as the government made it clear it will have to shut down the airline in that case. We can now hope that the Tatas — known to be considerate employers — won’t offload us and take us along in their aviation journey,” said an employee.