Sucheta Dalal :Bumpy Ride
Sucheta Dalal

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Bumpy Ride  

May 9, 2005


Last week we wrote that Air Sahara was forced to ground several flights when it lost some pilots to other airlines. Since then, Air Sahara’s internationally reputed chief Rono Datta spoke to The Indian Express about cancelled flights and how the airline planned to cope with the loss to other airlines.

According to Datta, 20 of its pilots left to join other airlines. Of these, he say, 10 left to join Air India Express (the low-cost airline subsidiary of Air India) after being offered a 30 per cent hike in salary.


Of the rest, five or six went to Spice Jet and the others to Kingfisher Airlines.


Air Sahara has obtained an injunction against further poaching from a Noida court. However, the order does not cover Air India Express.


An annoyed Rono Datta wonders whether it was the business strategy of these airlines to start operations simply by poaching pilots from other airlines.


‘‘After all, they knew their requirements as soon as they ordered aircraft,’’ he says.


According to Datta, Air Sahara has 35 pilots under training for almost six months and would be able to tide over the crisis.


Meanwhile, he says, the airline was hit by two sets of cancelled flights. The first was around April 19-20 when several pilots walked away and next on April 30 when a freak storm damaged two of its aircraft.


According to Datta, the immediate plan is to scale down flight operation until it is able to cope. He admits that delays and cancellations damage the airline’s reputation.


Datta says he is insisting on a spare aircraft being available on a 24-hour basis to tide over emergencies.


Higher Salaries?


Airline commanders, even in our public sector companies, take home hefty salaries (average pay including flying allowances) of around Rs 3 to 3.25 lakh per month and co-pilots take home approximately half that sum. If Air India Express is luring pilots with a 30 per cent hike, are pilots’ salaries then going through the roof? Airline sources tell us that Air India Express apparently did not offer higher salaries although the new aircraft (737-800) would have allowed them to do so. Instead, it offered to move them to the parent company, Air India, after three years. The job security that this promises was apparently a bigger lure than the pay cheque. Air Sahara, they say, has hiked the average salaries of top commanders to Rs 4 lakh to keep them back. Meanwhile, Indian Airlines too is understood to have lured as many as 13 pilots from Air Deccan. Again the carrot was steady jobs and more flying time — the latter translating to a big chunk of their salary in terms of in-flight allowances.


Heartbreak Street


Pilot problems are a worry, but no-frills airlines have bigger issues to handle. As this paper reported, Air India Express’ fancy 737-800 aircraft is grounded immediately after the inaugural flight to the UAE and has been replaced by a less viable A-310. But operators like Air Deccan, which have no back up aircraft, are continuing to break the hearts of summer holiday travellers, many of who are trying to take advantage of its low fares to fly to holiday destinations for the first time. On Friday last, the airline cancelled its flights to Coimbatore and other destinations due to engineering problems. If that were not bad enough, its call centre was clogged. We were told it was because its three phone lines were being used by the staff to inform passengers about the cancellations. Curiously, the airline which has a modern on-line booking facility, is funded by private equity and hoping to go public, does not have the presence of mind to announce its cancellations through its website.


And the ‘‘full refund’’ that it offers passengers is meaningless because a transfer to another airline is probably thrice as expensive. Ms. Mulchandani, a victim of Friday’s cancellation had cautiously purchased a ‘‘back up train booking two days later’’, which will be cancelled if she gets to fly. No-frills flying surely cannot work if it needs a train back up. It is probably a matter of time before consumers start dragging the airline to court to demand proper compensation.


Soap Opera


Hindustan Lever reported another set of abysmal results, announced a new chairman and hogged extensive favourable newspaper reports even though the slightly improved topline cannot conceal depressing profit numbers. If that weren’t bad enough, a whisper campaign emanating from the company blames the poor performance in the last couple of years on the previous chairman, Keki Dadiseth, who had turned out a string of spectacular numbers during his tenure, before moving to Unilever.


What a comedown for a proud MNC, which, even under the draconian FERA regime used to find ways to innovate, research, substitute (especially oils), diversify and grow. Today, faced with competition from small companies with clever marketing and better products, HLL bosses are reduced to finger-pointing.



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-- Sucheta Dalal