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Air India still flying high
November 27, 2013, 12:48 pm
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“The Air India office in Kuwait has limitations on what it can do to resolve or mitigate the issues that sometimes arise between the airline and its customers; obviously, we can only work with the products we have been given and I’ll be the first to agree that often these are not the most ideal ones,” said Ajay Sinha, the new Air India manager in Kuwait, at the onset of a very straightforward discussion with The Times recently.

“My primary focus is on trying to improve the services we already have and to implement new products on an urgent basis. Our foremost aim is to get better aircraft on this sector. Currently Kuwait is at the farthest end of our Gulf route and this distance creates limits on the kind of aircraft we can operate. The newer 319 and 321 aircraft are short and medium range and as such they are not suited for this route, whereas, the latest 777 and 787 that fly long, non-stop trips to United States, Europe and elsewhere are considered not viable for this stretch. This leaves us with the limited option of only using the current lineup of 320s. So our first priority is to get newer aircraft on this route as the existing ones in service have begun to show their age.”

“The second initiative that we are following up is to introduce a business class into our aircrafts. Due to an earlier policy decision, all 320 aircrafts plying this sector were converted into versions that had only economy seating. This decision left us without the capability to offer services to the premium segment of travelers and thereby hobbled the economic viability and profitability of the route.”

“A third proposal that we are studying is to widen the destinations we fly to in India. At present, Air India and Air India Express together operate 13 flights a week from Kuwait to India, with Air India flying to Ahmadabad, Hyderabad, Chennai and Goa and Air India Express flying to Mangalore, Kozhikode and Kochi, with the flight to Kochi having an aircraft change at Kozhikode, but the change is seamless with passengers undergoing their immigration and customs at Kochi.”

“We are also trying to revive some of the other routes to India, especially the one to Mumbai, which I understand was stopped some years back.  The decision to stop the route was probably because of the decrease in number of direct passengers to Mumbai; earlier, most Mumbai passengers were transiting to other destinations so when direct flights were introduced to other destinations, the direct Mumbai route was found to be no longer practical. However, I strongly believe that if we can introduce good timings and immediate connections to other places, Mumbai can still be a very attractive hub for Indian passengers.”

“We are in constant touch with our Corporate Office on these and other issues and have impinged on them the urgency of our needs, but unfortunately being a Public Sector Undertaking our urgency may not immediately translate into priority for the airline. However, we are hopeful of a favorable action in the near future.”

Elaborating on the airline’s market share, Mr. Sinha added, “Our market share is difficult to determine as many Indian passengers are flying out through hubs like Dubai or Doha. What we can say with certainty is that, despite all our acknowledged shortcomings, all our 13 weekly flights to India are doing very well. I believe that if we introduce attractive offers, provide good aircrafts and competitive products we will see our traffic numbers go up once again.”

“In the face of stiff competition from other airlines we realize that our fares have to be attractive. Most airlines now operate computerized revenue management systems that automatically open and close different class segment based on complicated algorithms that optimize revenue generation from each flight. Nevertheless, airline margins are razor thin; mainly on account of high fuel prices and manpower costs. While high fuel prices are a global phenomenon, the more than 31,000 personnel employed by Air India and Air India Express together are by industry standards quite high. Following the merger of the two airlines there was an exponential increase in manpower along with the expansion in network. Since then there has been a lot of restructuring going on and hopefully we will begin seeing the results once this transition phase settles down.”

“I have been with the airline for the last 33 years; however, this is my first posting overseas as manager. Though I have spent stints abroad, for most of my career I was based in the corporate office in Revenue Management and in New Projects. I was deeply involved in many of the new projects introduced recently, including the opening of our Call Center, our e-commerce venture and headed the division responsible for introducing the SITA-based computerized reservations. The over three decades that I have spent handling various aspects of the airline has been an interesting and eventful journey with its own share of challenges and opportunities.”

“I fully agree that passengers in Kuwait have several genuine issues, but unfortunately most of them are of the sort that requires decisions from head office.  I joined Kuwait office in August of this year and I am only beginning to come to grips with many of the issues raised by passengers here during my interactions with them. But I promise our passengers that whatever we can do given our limitations we will implement so as to improve the services provided by the airline.

While apologizing for the services that he could not change immediately, the manager said that he would do his utmost to ensure that passengers had a better experience with their national carrier in future. Passengers should also bear with us and realize that we are a PSU and cannot just call up someone and ask for changes in aircraft or improved routes, these things take their own time; what we can promise is to keep on trying our best.

There was a time when it was a prestige to fly on Air India and many of the other airlines looked up to us and tried to emulate us and there is no reason why we cannot revive those days. Despite the aging aircraft and restructuring issues we still have one of the best seats, the best legroom and seat widths among Indian aircrafts.”

On a personal level I feel that the Indian community in Kuwait is very strong, they have been very receptive and welcoming. On the business level the Kuwait market is not very complicated there is a clear segmentation of passengers along economy and premium class passengers with some in the middle.

It is not difficult to understand the market, what is more difficult is to please everyone as everyone is very price sensitive. We hope that as new aircraft are slowly added to the fleet we will see more new aircraft being employed on this route and we would be in a position to offer more destinations and introduce premium services on this route, especially since this route along with other routes from the Gulf countries are some of the most lucrative to the airline.

Air travel within India and abroad is increasing in India and this is good news for the airline industry. We promise to be more competitive, offer periodic promotions and stay in the news for all the right reasons.

-Times Kuwait Report

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