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Air India is Now the Worst Airline Ever

It’s time for some sad, sad truth. Alitalia, long the worst airline ever, is no longer deserving of the title. Sure, it continues to lose a bunch money, but there simply isn’t the same level of awesome, headline-grabbing stupidity day-in and day-out. The time has come for a new king.

I tried to give the title to Mexicana while it was in its death throes, but something funny happened. It actually did the right thing and went out of business, so the title reverted back to Alitalia. But no more. It’s time to pass it on to a new, highly-deserving, poor excuse for an airline. The new worst airline ever?

Air India.

Air India Crowned Worst Airline Ever

If you’ve been paying attention to Air India over the last few years, this will come as no surprise to you. This is an airline torn apart by three different competing factors (government, management, and labor), all of which are doing a fantastic job of destroying the airline. Add in the massive increase in competition over the last few years, and you have a recipe for disaster . . . deliciously enjoyable disaster.

Despite this high level of suck, I have faith that Air India won’t leave me hanging like Mexicana did. No, I can’t see it going out of business. It will just continue soldiering on in bureaucratic purgatory for years and years. Maybe we’ll see a restructuring here or a little shell game there to make things look better, but Air India will hopefully be around for awhile. How bad is it? It’s bad.

I turned to Vinay Bhaskara (@TheABVinay), now a contributor to Bangalore Aviation, to make sure I had all the info I needed. He provided me with a silly amount of information along with links that helped build this very obvious case for glory (or lack thereof). Let’s look at the tape . . .

While the government can talk a lot about how Air India needs to reform, a huge chunk of the problem lies with the government itself. See, India looks at the airline as its own personal toy. Government officials makes it fly wherever they want, and they hands out favors to those they like. Last year, the government actually gave out free first class upgrades and lounge access for LIFE to state secretaries and former ministers.

As if that’s not bad enough, former Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel made Air India deploy a larger airplane on a flight to the Maldives so that his daughter could have a seat in business class. Here’s a great article on how Patel really did his best to put Air India in the terrible, terrible position it’s in today.

One of the biggest issues? The forced merger of mostly international Air India and mostly domestic Indian Airlines has been an uncompleted nightmare. This has been the most ridiculous merger in ages with very little merging having occurred and instead just continuing bloat and inefficiency with massive infighting between the two factions.

What does the airline get in return for all this government meddling? Not much. The government apparently owes the airline millions of dollars for its transgressions, but it won’t pay up. Instead, it just convenes a committee to figure out what’s going on.

But don’t think that the government deserves all the blame. Management has had its share of incompetence. One of my favorite stories was about Air India spending millions on new tableware before realizing that it couldn’t use what it bought to actually heat the food. That’s a small mistake in the scheme of things but it’s quite telling of how things are (or aren’t) thought through.

That same greedy governmental grab for perks exists within Air India itself, including lavish spend on housing for its boss. The airline’s chief also upgraded his family despite telling others at the airline that they couldn’t do the same.

But there are much bigger mismanagement issues as well. How about the massive cargo operation that has to turn cargo away because it doesn’t have enough staff to unload it? This from an airline that has thousands and thousands of employees who simply do not need to be there at all. Those people apparently just aren’t in the right place.

The same thing happens with maintenance. Air India outsources some maintenance despite having slack capacity to do it in-house. It has thrown away money by shifting pilots back and forth in training without actually having them fly. And now it’s looking at expansion on ill-advised routes like Delhi to Melbourne. This is all like a bad dream.

Perhaps the most amusing Air India side-story is that between management and labor. Management gave in to the pilots thanks to a labor disruption, just like United did after the summer of 2000. The only difference? United was still making money at that point (though not for long), and the pilots wanted a bigger chunk. With Air India, the airline is bleeding and the pilots STILL want more cash.

There seems to be this entitlement feeling among the workforce that pay raises are in order regardless of the massive hemorrhaging in the airline’s financials. As long as labor gets what it wants, it assumes the airline will never go under.

The entitlement feeling seems to be pervasive. I really liked this story about a purser who delayed a flight because he wasn’t given a special meal that he had requested at the last minute. Sure, some complaints are legitimate, like severe understaffing. But at a time when Air India can’t even pay the salaries on the books, why push for more pay and then strike when you don’t get it? It’s like pulling the plug on your ailing grandmother even if she’s not necessarily a terminal case.

What Now?
So where does all this insanity leave the airline? Screwed. It’s broke, and it can’t run itself properly. Its small domestic route structure (excluding the Indian Airlines flights) managed a 22 percent load factor, though I can’t imagine we’ll see much change with this lumbering behemoth.

In May, it couldn’t even afford to pay the inflight entertainment fees and had to go dark on its long haul fleet until it was resolved. This is brilliant.

All of these problems have led to a huge embarrassment: the inability of Air India to get its act together in order to enter into Star Alliance. That would have brought a great deal of new revenue through partnerships in the largest alliance in the world, but that alliance got sick of waiting for the airline to stop sucking. The entry into Star Alliance is now off.

There’s talk of now trying for SkyTeam. If Aeroflot, Garuda Indonesia, Vietnam Airlines, and others can get themselves into this alliance, then surely Air India can, right? I wouldn’t be so sure. This airline is one giant mess. With little chance of much changing but also little chance of it going out of business, I’m feeling pretty good about transferring the title of worst airline ever to a most deserving airline.

Congratulations, Air India.

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