Pilots not to blame, says Gustav Baldauf, former Air India COO

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Pilots not to blame, says Gustav Baldauf, former Air India COO
Mumbai:  While Air India officials are still searching for that elusive breakthrough that may lead pilots to call off their ongoing strike, the deadlock threatens to intensify, with some strong words spoken by former COO Gustav Baldauf. In an exclusive interview with MiD DAY, Baldauf, who resigned in March after being served a showcause notice for going public with his grievances, attacked the work culture prevalent in the quarters of the national carrier. Air India is yet to appoint a new COO.

The Air India pilots are on strike. Can you tell us who is responsible for it? Would you blame the management or the pilots?
The management never resolved the pending HR issues related to the merger. In a report in January, I had warned the CMD and Aviation Ministry of the consequences of introducing a single code without resolving issues first. But they never listened. I have had many experiences with mergers, and am in a position to comment. But evidently, my warnings were ignored and this is the result. Blaming the pilots now will not work, since they had asked for a solution at the right time.

Have you voluntarily quit your job, or were you asked to leave, like Pawan Arora was? Can the remarks you made about the government have anything to do with your discontinuation? Can it be said that you had to pay a heavy price for your honesty?
I quit my job, as there were clear indications that the ministry was trying to contrive situations to get me out of the job, with disregard to the mutually-agreed points on the contract. My remark was just the end of the story -- the aviation minister had made it very clear in his statements that he did not want any expatriate on the team. The CMD was happy to follow his instructions. If you only work in the system, and not on it, there will be no progress or change. But the sorry reality is that all officials involved seemed happy to continue with the old system and their practices, as it was convenient and advantageous for them. So yes, maybe I paid a heavy price for honesty. But I never wanted to be part of the system, which condoned many wrongdoings. Don't forget that the international aviation industry is keeping a close eye on events unfolding in India, and there are a lot of reactions, even if you don't see them or feel their reverberations in the country. Just follow the comments on the latest issue of Indian pilots who faked their licences, and you will know.

Is there too much political interference in Air India? Can you cite instances of the level of interference? How is it affecting the growth of the national carrier?
If you have any doubts about political interference in the airlines, you should just take a look at how experts like Pawan Arora or Stephan Sukumar were treated by the Ministry and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). Look at how their proficiency and qualifications were questioned. After sacking Capt Arora, a new COO for Air India Express was introduced overnight by the ministry. There was no hearing by any committee, no qualification check, no information offered to the board members or to me. The only criterion that he seemed to fulfill is that he hailed from Kerala. What can we call this? Don't forget that we were trying to set up a national carrier, not a small airlines operation somewhere in an African bush! At the end, Air India and the taxpayers will pay a high price for their underhand actions. If you want to be succeeding in a sustained fashion, you have to think of a strategy, a proper concept, and then plan in a manner that the strategy will be implemented. But in order to do this, people will have to leave personal profits and agendas out of the equation. My turnaround concept and plan for Air India was ready -- it was accepted by the board of directors. It was even whetted by SBICAPS and Deloitte. It would certainly have restored Air India to its pristine glory. Why was this plan shot down to the ground? You find out.

You were recruited during Praful Patel's tenure. You are quitting when Ravi has been newly appointed as minister. Who do you consider to be the best minister for Air India's growth?
The future will reveal who is the best aviation minister for the country and the industry. From my vantage point, I found a very professional and active minister in Praful Patel. I also witnessed from close quarters his successor, who would not even discuss matters with me before taking major decisions. Right after I left, he turned up in Brussels at the European Union, and tried to personally finalise some aircraft deals. But Indian ethics and standards are not condoned abroad. 

Independent directors on the Air India board were also against some of the decisions that you took. What were the reasons behind that?
The independent directors in general were not against my decisions. But some of them had their own agenda to work towards.

It is said that India is a great democracy, where people are entitled to their freedom of speech and their right to criticise. But when you raised your voice, you were asked to leave. Have you learnt a bitter lesson?
For an expatriate it is very difficult to work in India, especially when under government officials. I was strictly following Indian rules and acting in accordance with Indian culture. But when you want to upgrade a national carrier, which is in very bad shape, to international standards and quality, you must have the humility to accept some constructive criticism. I think this was the idea behind hiring an outsider. But soon the system administrators realised that their personal kingdoms were being endangered, and changed their minds. 

Would you continue to be as candid and honest in other situations say another job back in your country? Or have you realised that sometimes it does not pay to be so frank in a deceitful world that subscribes to double standards?
I am an aviation professional giving my best to any company I work for. The experience I had while working with Air India has definitely made me wiser. But it will not stop me from working anywhere else in the world.
 

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