This Article is From Sep 26, 2023

"No Merger Until Air India Gets To Level Of Vistara": CEO

On the competition with IndiGo, Campbell Wilson said both airlines are addressing different segments of the market.

The Air India CEO also praised the "massive progress" India has made in infrastructure development.

New Delhi:

Air India and the Centre are aligned on making India a civil aviation hub, like Dubai or Singapore, and this is part of the company's plan as well, the airline's Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director Campbell Wilson has said.

In an exclusive interview with NDTV, Mr Wilson spoke on a range of issues and said he is upbeat not just about the direction that the company is going in but also what the future holds for Indian aviation. He also discussed safety, the airline's new aircraft, the timeline for the Air India-Vistara merger, and the battle with IndiGo, which is the other behemoth in Indian aviation.

"No Effort Spared on Safety"

Being a part of the government for a long time has instilled a certain culture in Air India and that is part of the reason that the civil aviation regulator had to take action against the carrier over safety issues, Mr Wilson said. He was answering a question on the recent suspension of the airline's Chief of Flight Safety for a month after an inspection found lapses in the carrier's accident-prevention protocol.

"There's a lot of reasons why Air India is what it is. It's had a long history, background as part of the government. That's imbued a certain culture. And we are spending a lot of time bringing in people, bringing in training, bringing in systems, bringing in consequence management, and really demonstrating what world-class standards are in a safety environment," he sad

The MD emphasised that they are actively "plugging into" external bodies, like the International Air Transport Association and the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, to ensure that the airline deeply understands the standards that are required. 

"Promulgating them through an organisation that has been acting in a certain way for a long time takes time. And educating people and reinforcing that standards that might have been acceptable in the past are no longer acceptable now requires constant attention. We're not sparing any effort in making this happen. It is disappointing that we have these episodes, but they have to be episodes that we learn from," he said. 

Aviation Hub

Speaking to NDTV earlier this month, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia had said that India could not only become an aviation hub like Dubai, Doha or Singapore in the next five years or less, but it could also have multiple hubs, beginning with the Delhi airport, in different parts of the country.

When Mr Wilson was asked for his thoughts on this, and whether India could see people flying into Delhi on their way to other places, as opposed to doing so from Qatar or Dubai, Mr Wilson said, "I think it's not binary, you either don't or you do. Air India already carries people from Europe into Delhi and they connect onwards to Asia or Australasia. As a proportion of our total traffic, it's relatively small, but as we expand our frequency, as we improve our product, as the transit experience in Delhi improves, that will just get increasingly more. "

"So it all really is a hub. Now, will it become the mega hub of the likes of others? In terms of volume of people, absolutely yes. But the structure will change because India has such a huge point-to-point demand, whether from city or whether from country going to somewhere else," he added.

The Air India MD pointed out that the international component of India's hub is almost certainly going to be smaller than it would be in a city-state, which doesn't have the supporting population that the country enjoys. 

"But absolutely, we should have hubs, larger hubs in India. They can and, in my view, should be more than one. It is a key part of Air India's future plan. And so we're fully aligned," he said.

Merger With Vistara

Air India needs to get to the level of Vistara, which was built on the latest technology and had new aircraft, before the merger of the airlines can happen, Mr Wilson said, adding that the new carrier will probably retain the 'Air India' name, which comes with a 91-year heritage and is known globally.

"We've said that the future airline will probably be called Air India. But we won't be merging Vistara and Air India until such time that we feel that Air India has reached the level that Vistara is at. With Vistara as part of the family, there's a lot we can learn from... I think part of the reason that Vistara has been successful is a very young airline that was built on latest technology, had new aircraft. And these are things that Air India will have in due course too," the Air India MD said. 

"So it's inevitable, in my view, and we will not stop until Air India reaches at least Vistara's level. At the same time, Air India carries the name 'Air India', which is known and beloved around the world. And it has 91 years of history and heritage and recognition. So I think logically, internationally, Air India is by far the better name to have," he added.

IndiGo Battle

On IndiGo and the challenges of competing with a low-cost airline, which is now making a significant foray into the international market as well, the Air India MD said both carriers are addressing different parts of the market.

"I think there are different market segments and I think that's evidenced by the fact that in Australia you have a full-service and a low-cost airline. In Singapore, Germany, France, you can sort of take your pick. We will stand for full service at Air India. Product quality, consistency, warmth of service, full service, meals, entertainment, comfortable seats, business class, first class, premium economy class," Mr Wilson said. 

"Of course, we do have a low-cost business, Air India Express. And so, for people that don't quite want those bells and whistles or prefer price over product and service, we will offer them a proposition as well. So really our portfolio approach is to ensure that we meet the needs of the consumer. We don't necessarily dictate to the consumer what they should take from us," he added.

A 'Maharani' Soon?

With the airline changing its brand identity and livery, NDTV asked Mr Wilson whether Air India - on the lines of the iconic Maharaja - could have a Maharani soon.

"Anything's possible. I think let's just take it a step at a time. We've just released a new brand, people are still getting used to that new brand. We've said quite categorically that the Maharaja is part of the future Air India. It will have a certain manifestation closer to home, maybe a slightly different manifestation outside India. We'll see how it evolves. Air India will see new uniforms as well," he said. 

Upgrading The Old, In With The New

The MD said Air India is refurbishing several aircraft as part of its long-term transformation plan, called 'vihaan.AI' and that the airline wants to represent the new India, which is "confident, warm and hospitable". He said the airline wants the 470 new aircraft, which are coming in, to sit and grow on a strong base.

"That's why we committed to the $400 million for complete refurbishment of all of the wide-body aircraft with new seats, new in-flight entertainment, new galleys, new lavatories - essentially a complete replacement of the interior. Installation of the seats will commence on the first aircraft in the middle of next year in addition to those refurbished aircraft," he said

On the aircraft that have been grounded for a long time and the effort - and a huge number of parts - that was needed to restore them, the MD said, "It was a significant process because there were, if I recall, about 30 aircraft that had been grounded. I believe we've got two aircraft, two widebody aircraft at least, that are still in the process of being recovered. Some of these aircraft require thousands of parts. In totality, I think we're now up to about 40,000 parts that we've needed to acquire to get these aircraft airworthy."

He said it was no secret that the world is undergoing a supply chain crunch and getting the parts and installing them has taken time. "But we're nearly at the end of that journey, thankfully. That's what has allowed us to increase service to five new cities already this year, international cities, and expand frequency on others," he said. 

"Then, of course, there's new aircraft we have coming in Thus far, we've got six 777s that have  already entered the fleet and are serving routes to North America and London. We have five more coming in over the next four-five months And we have six of our new A350s coming in before March 2024. Which will mean that. by March 2024, about 30% of our wide-body aircraft will be of a modern standard," Mr Wilson said. 

Big Progress

The Air India MD also praised the "massive progress" India has made in infrastructure development for civil aviation, and sounded very upbeat about the directions the airline could go in, and the new routes it could explore. 

"The great thing about Indian aviation is that there are so many more opportunities than we have aircraft at the moment. So you could almost take your pick. There are many cities in North America that would warrant non-stop service from India - and not just from Delhi, from other markets. Likewise, Europe, Australia, Asia, Africa - I think there is a range of options and opportunities for us," he said.