Vande Bharat, Air Bubbles, Lifeline Udan reinforce Air India's legacy despite barbs

Air India has often been ridiculed for its massive pile of debts and losses, subsistence on taxpayer money, flight delays, aged crew and so on, but has again proved that it is not a pushover

Vande Bharat, Air Bubbles, Lifeline Udan reinforce Air India's legacy despite barbs
Air India, true to its status as the national carrier, has emerged as the national saviour time and again. Image courtesy: Air India

"We are proud of you that in a pandemic situation you are operating flights. Good Luck!" said a Pakistan air traffic controller (ATC) as an Air India jet entered Pakistan's airspace en route to Frankfurt in Germany, carrying relief materials and evacuated foreigners stranded in India earlier this year. The Pakistan ATC even conveyed the Indian aircraft's position to Tehran's airspace.

Iran, on its part, along with good wishes for the Indian airline, provided a direct route of over 1,000 miles (around 1,610 km), which is unprecedented, given that direct routing in the Iranian airspace is reserved for defence purposes. All the other ATCs on the aircraft's flight path, including those in Turkey and Germany welcomed the Air India relief flight and wished the crew luck.

Resilient despite ridicule 

Indeed, the Indian national carrier, which has often been the subject of ridicule for its massive pile of debts and losses, subsistence on taxpayer money, flight delays, aged crew, quality of food served on board, and impending privatisation/closure, has bounced back again to prove that it is not a pushover. 

Air India has been at the forefront of India's Covid-19 response and its staff have put their lives at considerable risk, ferrying people in distress and relief materials to far-flung places, even as the deadly coronavirus keeps killing millions worldwide.

Vande Bharat and other evacuations

Since February, the national carrier had been taking the lead to evacuate and bring back stricken Indian and foreign nationals in some of the worst Covid-19 hotspot countries of the world, including China, from where the virus originated. 

Not only that, but it had also been providing safe flight for foreigners stranded in India to their native places. 

Air India has had a rich history of national service even before VBM, air bubbles and Lifeline Udan. Image courtesy: Twitter/@aaiagtairport

Air India planes brought back close to 1,500 Indian nationals and some foreigners from places like Wuhan in China (the coronavirus epicentre), Milan and Rome in Italy and even from a quarantined ship docked off the coast of Japan's Yokohama. Air India flights also carried evacuees from Iran to quarantine facilities in India.

The airline also entered into a contract to fly 18 special charter flights to evacuate the citizens of Germany, Canada, France and Ireland stranded in India. Special flights were also operated to Colombo and Sharjah (UAE). Air India had also planned to run special flights to carry Canadians to London and Germans to Frankfurt. An Air India flight from Delhi to Tel Aviv on 26 March took 314 Israelis home.  

Also read -- Vande Bharat Mission: Mega Covid rescue builds on steady work by Air India, IAF

As the Covid-19 pandemic took frightening proportions, countries the world over went under lockdowns and imposed travel bans. India itself implemented a strict nationwide lockdown from March 25 and international scheduled commercial passenger flights were suspended from March 23. As the clamour grew among the Indians stranded in foreign lands and staring at fast vanishing livelihoods to return home and be with their families in these difficult times, the government came up with a mega repatriation plan called the Vande Bharat Mission in early May.  

In the first phase of the mission, nearly 15,000 Indians were planned to be brought back in a week, mainly from the Gulf countries. Not only that, over two lakh Indians expressed their desire to be repatriated. The Vande Bharat Mission was envisaged as the world's biggest evacuation exercise ever.   

The government also announced that a person having an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, holding the citizenship of a foreign country, a valid visa of more than one year of that country, or a green card of that country would be allowed to fly out of India on Vande Bharat repatriation flights.

Air India and its low-cost subsidiary Air India Express were to play a pivotal role in the exercise. The two airlines have continued to be the main drivers of the mission, which entered its sixth phase on September 1 though private airlines have now also joined the initiative.  

Till October 7, the Air India Group has operated 3,206 inbound flights under the Vande Bharat Mission, carrying back 5,38,568 passengers. It has also flown 3,205 outbound flights carrying 2,99,932 passengers from India. 

Always alert to national duty 

The current operations are, however, not new for Air India. It has a long legacy of turning saviour in times of national crisis. 

In 1990, Air India led a group of airlines that included Indian Airlines and Aeroflot, apart from the Indian Air Force (IAF) to rescue an estimated 1.7 lakh people from the Gulf after Iraq invaded Kuwait that led to the First Gulf War. This was the biggest evacuation exercise by India until the mega Covid-19 repatriation plan was drawn up. 

Air India had also conducted airlifts from Yemen in 1994 and 2015, UAE in 1996, Saudi Arabia in 1997, Kuwait again in 2003, Cyprus in 2006, Libya and Egypt in 2011, Tunisia in 2014 and Nepal in 2015.

"At one call the men and machines of Air India have always stepped forward during national emergencies whether it has been a war scenario, a viral outbreak or natural calamities. The national carrier and its men always took pride in coming forward for a national cause," wrote former Air India Chairman and Managing Director Ashwani Lohani in The Outlook.

Air India pilots and crew have put their lives at immense risk for Covid-related evacuations. Image courtesy: Lifeline Udan

The airline's Rome flight, captained by the mother-of-two Swati Rawal drew effusive praise from the civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, "Extremely proud of this team of @airindiain, which has shown utmost courage and risen to the call of humanity. Their outstanding efforts are admired by several people across India. #IndiaFightsCorona." 

Air bubbles

Air India's Vande Bharat exercise ran into rough weather in June with the US transport department restricting the Indian carrier's operations. The US agency alleged that Air India's so-called evacuation charters had gone beyond evacuation in the real sense and involved commercial motives, while the US carriers wanted to operate similar charters were discriminated against by the Indian government. It also accused Air India of using the Vande Bharat Mission as a means to get round the international air travel ban imposed by the Indian government in the wake of Covid-19.   

Also read: How India's air bubbles calmed US fury, supplemented Vande Bharat

This pushed India to enter air bubble pacts with the US and 15 other countries till the time that this article was being written. Under such bilateral deals, the carriers of India and the partner country would be able to carry passengers both ways and enjoy reciprocal rights. Though the kind of people who can travel on these flights is clearly specified, the air bubble pacts have brought back international air travel even if in a very limited way.      

The Air India Group has been playing a prominent role here too, and according to the air bubble agreement with Bahrain, only the Air India Group has been chosen to represent the Indian side, while the pacts with the other nine countries mention 'Indian carriers'. 

Air India also operates domestic feeder services to various Indian cities for the passengers departing or arriving on evacuation flights. 

Anchor for Lifeline Udan

Air India has also been the linchpin of the government's Lifeline Udan project, which was launched on March 26, to transport medical cargo and other essential supplies to the remotest corners of the country, with special focus on the Northeast, island territories and hill states, as the government imposed a strict lockdown and suspended all scheduled passenger flights to break the Covid-19 infection chain.

As of May 3, 443 flights were operated under the Lifeline Udan programme, carrying 821 tonnes of cargo over 4,34,531 km. Out of these, as many as 265 flights were flown by Air India and its wholly-owned subsidiary Alliance Air alone.

According to the latest government data, till June 1, 588 flights were operated by Air India, Alliance Air, Indian Air Force (IAF), Pawan Hans and private carriers like SpiceJet, IndiGo and Vistara. Till that time, an aerial distance of over 5,45,085 km was covered and 940 tonnes of essential medical cargo was transported. 

The national carrier also ensured the transportation of critical items between India and other countries during this time of the pandemic. 

Alliance Air has provided every support to its parent for Lifeline Udan's success. Image courtesy: Lifeline Udan

A cargo air bridge was established between India and East Asia under Lifeline Udan for the transportation of pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and other Covid-19-related relief materials. As part of this initiative, from April 4 to May 3, Air India carried a total of 930 tonnes of cargo between India and destinations like Shanghai and Guangzhou (China), Seoul (South Korea) and Hong Kong.

Air India also took nine tonnes of medical cargo on April 7 and four tonnes on April 8 to Colombo (Sri Lanka). Another flight carried 3.4 tonnes to Seychelles and 12.6 tonnes to Mauritius on April 15.

Also read -- India's war on Covid-19: How Lifeline Udan proved critical for success of lockdown

Furthermore, under the Krishi Udan programme, an Air India flight from Mumbai to London (UK) on April 13 carried 28.95 tonnes of fruits and vegetables and returned with 15.6 tonnes of general cargo. Another flight operated by the airline took 27 tonnes of seasonal fruits and vegetables to Frankfurt (Germany) and brought back 10 tonnes of general cargo.

Nation first despite risks, handicaps

What's remarkable is that the Air India staff have jumped to the call of national duty, true to the spirit of being part of the national carrier, despite several handicaps.

Air India pilots raised concern over “flimsy protective gear, inadequate sanitisers, shoddy disinfection procedure”. They pointed out that the airline had not made arrangements for the crew to go on quarantine despite flying to some of the worst-hit Covid-19 centres. They also flagged the lack of medical facilities as the Air India Medical Services Department was allowed to work from home. It was as if the entire responsibility of any infection suffered by the crew or their families because of the high-risk flights was on the crew members themselves. There was also no additional Covid-related insurance for the crew. What's worse, the airline even conveyed to its employees that “enquiries on reimbursement of bills, sick leave, fitness certificate, are considered as undesirable”.

Significantly, the Air India union Indian Pilots' Guild wrote to the then CMD before the Wuhan mission, "... due to the long incubation period of this virus, post-mission support for all personnel and equipment involved in this mission is crucial well after the completion of a flight".

Furthermore, the airline first announced a 10% cut in the allowances for all employees except cabin crew for three months with effect from March 2020 to battle the Covid-19 downturn. It also withdrew the special allowance for pilots and revised downward the layover allowance for the cabin crew. Significantly, flying allowances of Air India pilots constitute 70% of their salaries. Thus the pilots who are at the frontline of the Covid-19 battle are forced to bear the greatest hardships, while the austerity measures would hardly affect the top management as their allowances are relatively quite small.

According to a report in June, the debt-ridden airline also planned to reduce the guaranteed 70 hours flying allowance for the pilots to 30-35 hours as a cost-cutting measure in view of the pandemic.

Then in July, it cut the monthly allowances of its employees who drew a gross salary of over Rs 25,000 per month by up to 50%.

According to media reports in July, the pilots had to bear a 60% pay cut, including a heavy cut on allowances, while the salaries of the top management were reduced by a mere 3.5-4%. The pilots of the airline alleged that they had not been paid 70% of their salaries since April.

The airline also approved leave without pay (LWP) scheme of six months or two years extendable up to five years for its employees on the basis of their suitability, competence, health, and other such factors. 

In August, the company got into legal trouble with terminated pilots taking it to court.  

Air India revealed in May that five pilots who flew cargo flights to China and two employees of the airline's engineering services subsidiary AIESL had been infected by the coronavirus. In July, two leading Air India pilot unions said in a letter to CMD Rajiv Bansal that 55 pilots had already contracted the virus. In an internal circular dated July 20, the airline noted that some of its employees had died due to the disease. 

Despite risking their lives for the national cause, these intrepid corona warriors of Air India have been allegedly maltreated by a section of the general public too. Shockingly, there have been allegations that the crew that rescued over a thousand Indians from China, Italy and Japan were ostracised in their housing societies in Delhi and Mumbai. Civil aviation minister Puri directed all concerned authorities to provide protection for the Air India crew and their families.

Jumbo-sized financial troubles

The biggest slur on Air India despite its selfless service from time to time has been its inability to manage losses and debt. It witnessed a record loss of Rs 8556.35 crore in 2018-19 and has not seen profits since its merger with Indian Airlines in 2007-08.

Inside an Air India Lifeline Udan flight. Image courtesy: Lifeline Udan  

According to a recent RTI response by Air India, there were outstanding dues of over Rs 822 crore towards VVIP charter flights as on November 30, 2019. Rs 9.67 crore towards evacuation operations and Rs 12.65 crore towards transporting foreign dignitaries were also pending. Alarmingly, Rs 526.16 crore was due to the airline on account of tickets taken on credit by government officials as on March 31, 2019. These factors, apart from high interest rates, fluctuating exchange rates due to a weakening rupee and competition from low-cost carriers have put a burden on the airline's finances.  

According to Puri, considering the debt pile that Air India sits on, the choice for the government is to either privatise it or shut it down. The airline has received equity infusion from the government to the tune of Rs 30,520.21 crore till date since FY 2011-12. However, according to an Economic Times report in July, the government has declined to provide equity support to the airline any further given that it had taken over 60% of the airline's debts, thereby reducing its total debt from Rs 62,000 crore to Rs 23,286 crore.

Air India, however, made a Rs 2,556.60 crore profit till August 31 as a result of the Vande Bharat flights at a time when international scheduled commercial passenger flights continue to be suspended, the civil aviation minister revealed.    

The Economic Times reported in August that aircraft manufacturing behemoth Boeing suspended spare parts replacement pact for Air India's wide-bodied 787 Dreamliners due to non-payment of dues. This programme would have helped the airline save up to 30% of maintenance costs and it was feared that the suspension would hurt Air India immensely given that it heavily uses the Dreamliners for Vande Bharat flights. Air India owes Boeing $33 million in dues, finance charges and penalties since 2017. 

Still, a first-rate brand

However, Puri has maintained that Air India is a first-rate airline. It has 120 planes, it connects 80 domestic destinations, 50 foreign destinations, it has a first-rate engineering staff, pilots, cabin crew, Puri pointed out during an interaction with CNN News18. Air India's vital strengths include wide-bodied planes and long-haul routes. It also has lucrative slots at London's clogged Heathrow Airport.

In an interview with The Economic Times, Puri said that the privatisation-bound Air India's buyer would not only get the airline's assets, it would also be buying into a dynamic market called India.

The government extended the deadline to submit expressions of interest for taking over Air India till October 30 in view of the situation arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was the third extension of the deadline to submit bids. The airline was put on the block on January 27 and the initial deadline for submission of bids was March 31. It was first extended to June 30 and then to August 31.

The government is looking to offload its entire stake in the debt-ridden carrier, including Air India’s 100% shareholding in Air India Express and 50% in Air India SATS Airport Services. To further sweeten the deal, the government is considering to drop the condition that necessitated the winning bidder to absorb Air India's aircraft debt. 

However, despite such debilitating handicaps, Air India continues to soldier on and set the gold standard for humanitarian assistance and national service. Importantly, the government has mandated that Air India's buyer must not change the brand name post-privatisation. 

Former Air India CMD Ashwani Lohani adds in his Outlook article that before the national carrier gets a new owner, a system must be instituted to ensure that national emergencies can be looked after and Indians can be swiftly and safely evacuated from any part of the world whenever the need arises. Nothing can be truer.