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Air India Employees Upset As Tatas Shake Up Decades-Old Status Quo

Air India employees seem like an unhappy lot as the Tatas have made several fundamental changes including automated roster planning, digital leave applications and rewarding merit over seniority.

By Anjuli Bhargava
New Update

Turnaround efforts by the Tatas at the erstwhile national carrier Air India seem quite haphazard to outside observers and to many within the aviation sector in India. Right from the word go, the new management took an unexpectedly long time to announce a chief executive officer to lead the turnaround, although the buyout was confirmed in October 2021. Campbell Wilson came on board only in June-July 2022, after Tata’s first choice of candidate fell through. 

However, as the Tatas make fundamental changes to the way that the airline functions — including automated roster planning, digital leave applications and rewarding merit over seniority — they’re facing major furore from employees who are used to the old ways of functioning.

Changes In Top Management

Earlier this month, it announced further senior management changes aimed at increasing the efficiency of its operations. A new expat chief operating officer (COO), was brought in by the management. Captain Klaus Goersch is both a pilot and has held similar positions in British Airways and Air Canada.  His induction was accompanied by a further shake-up in the second line of command focused on the operational aspects of the business including flight operations, engineering, ground operations, cabin crew and safety. 

The latest induction marks practically the first whiff of fundamental change at Air India as an old and controversial incumbent was transitioned into an advisory role. Soon after the takeover, the Tata’s brought in internal Tata talent into the airline at the top management level while retaining practically all the executive directors and senior management from the old guard. There was a one-year embargo on retaining old employees, which is no longer in effect.

Many expressed surprise at the latest management changes as the CEO has said on record more than once that the airline is done with the taxiing stage and is now in takeoff mode. This prompts the question — who makes such fundamental changes at the takeoff stage? It is argued that legacy issues such as human resource management should have been well behind them if the taxiing phase is indeed over. In an industry where quick footedness is a core ingredient for success, many were of the view that the Tata group -— famed for its slow and measured approach — might not be up to the task.

Having observed this airline for close to 25 years, I think the present and past employees of the airline, industry and outside observers have to be prepared for many such ripples as people management remains the trickiest job in the carrier as it moves ahead with its plans, including the proposed merger with Vistara. 

In fact, it would be fair to say that even as the Tatas try to stabilise this ship, decibel levels, protests and concerns from at least one category of employees — pilots and inflight crew — have scaled new heights. This year, not a week has gone by without fireworks —long detailed WhatsApp messages and social media posts from crew members and pilots in particular claim things have worsened since the airline was privatised. 

Destroying Decade-Old Status Quo

Many say that the airline is in the grip of a severe communication breakdown, which has even been expressed in the form of poetry. This is despite or perhaps due to the fact that the airline has internally produced a single seniority list of all its pilots — 2,200 are from Air India, which includes around 1,200 commanders (P1s) and 1,000-odd first officers (P2s) and 3,500 commanders and first officers from Air Asia India, Air India Express and Vistara, who will soon be part of the merged entity. Three hundred and fifty senior trainee pilots are currently undergoing training on narrow bodies and will be inducted over the next few months.

The list has been readied by the Tata management to ensure that there is a logical sequence of progression for all: from first officers to commanders and from narrow to wide-bodied aircraft and that everyone gets an equal and fair opportunity. IndiGo, the biggest private player, has been losing commanders in dribs and drabs, especially those looking to move from narrow to wide-bodied operations, mostly to Gulf and Middle East carriers.

In theory, a planned progression and career path as proposed by the new management sounds eminently sensible but in an airline steeped in stasis and malpractices, any change will be met with resistance and then some more. Let me elaborate. 

The Tatas have begun rocking the boat and destroying a status quo established over practically half a decade as it begins to seek and reward merit over seniority. This is upsetting for many who are accustomed to their perks, benefits and even compensation being connected directly with the number of years they have served and not how effectively or committedly they have done so. This is causing many ripples within a system that has functioned with almost zero accountability for years. “A large number of employees have never been taken to task and have managed to remain protected from any actions that require them to perform their basic duties,” said a top airline source.

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Streamlining Of Processes

The new management is also ruffling many feathers by tackling malpractices that have crept into the system over the years including a full-blown scam involving rostering of pilots. The manual system of rostering has now been replaced by an automated one that ensures optimality for the airline as opposed to the individual. This has reduced opportunities for misuse and for personal gains for a set of employees who were thriving on it.

In general too, a system of processes and a set of well-defined policies for employee welfare have been introduced as opposed to personal favours,  using contacts or your network in the airline to get things done, which is again leading to a fair amount of discontent and unhappiness from those who profited from the lack of due process. 

With support from Tata Consultancy Services, the Tatas have introduced close to a dozen odd apps and portals internally for smoother processes to cater to a range of employee-related services — right from online training, foreign exchange cards, and payslip retrieval to medical and leave applications and employee support which has been labelled by some as “digital red tape” and by some in more dramatic terms as “digital terrorism”. “A lot of the employee-related benefits and perks were earlier determined or settled based on who knew whom, currying favours and a sort of ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ tacit understanding,” said a senior management source.

Several employees complained and told this writer that they are spending far more time accessing basic perks and allowances and dealing with admin-related stuff than they ought to be, adding that some of the older employees are struggling since they are not as digitally savvy (at least 30% of the total staff at the airline is over 45 years of age). While this might have a grain of truth, there is a tendency to exaggerate the onus and underplay the benefits. 

Why Feathers Are Ruffled

Having said that, I can’t help but feel some sympathy for the unenviable task before the Tatas for other reasons too. The close and intense scrutiny they have been subjected to from the word go is unlikely to abate since it is the national carrier and of interest to virtually every Indian. Many citizens claim to identify with and feel an emotional connection with the airline, which few would claim to feel for the private players including IndiGo.

To add to this, expectations from the group to perform are unrealistically high since the airline set pretty high standards in the past when it was steered and run by founder JRD Tata. The Tata patriarch took a personal interest in Air India as he had an innate love for all things aviation, something that no longer exists in the Tata group at any level. As such the group’s experience, expertise and knowledge as it stands today isn’t something to write home about as has been seen with its existing forays. Air Asia India has been a failure whereas Vistara too has so far failed to establish itself as a successful business even if it offers a decent service. Matching expectations is therefore likely to be far harder than for other corporate entities or groups in India.

Overall, it would be fair to say that the changes being made within the airline at a human resource and personnel level are fundamental, critical and bound to ruffle many feathers. Moreover, I would argue that the present communication breakdown and an almost never-ending barrage of criticism and complaints from insiders will need to be taken with a large dose of salt and borne with as it is unlikely to abate and perhaps even intensify as the merger with Vistara takes full effect. Present and former employees, industry professionals and observers vested should tighten their seatbelts and sit back as this turbulence is likely to last longer than anticipated.

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