Sunday, June 17, 2007

Message in Indian Express16_06_07

The Civil Aviation Minister and Secretary have once again declared that they plan to ‘‘rationalize’’ the operation of Air India, and Indian Airlines. Not surprisingly, this is not exactly headline news. And, as the old saying goes, the way to hell is paved with good intentions! The travelling public has heard these promises so often, that they are no longer taken seriously. Within a very short period, private airlines in this country have left our national carriers far behind, and captured a huge percentage of the market share.

This is by no means any reflection on the talented, dedicated and extremely committed staff of Air India and Indian Airlines. As Minister for Civil Aviation I was deeply impressed by the loyalty and involvement displayed by the staff of our national carriers. If I ever had occasion to fly on a private airline, the staff posted at the airport, or the flight attendants on the return flight would always join issue with me and ask why I had not flown Indian Airlines on the way out. I would laugh and tell them that I was Minister for Civil Aviation, and not Minister for Indian Airlines!

Flight attendants and other staff have displayed extraordinary courage at times of crisis. Some have lost their lives, while protecting passengers in hijack situations. In fact, I have never heard of a single instance of any flight attendant failing to put the interests of the passengers above their own health or safety. By and large, they are courteous, helpful and efficient… in short a remarkable bunch of people.

Women working in our national carriers have been very shabbily treated by the management. They have been grounded at the age of 40, and told that they were unfit to fly thereafter. There were times when they were not permitted to marry, or if they did had to resign. It was mandatory for them to undergo annual health and fitness checks. None of this was applicable to men in the same jobs, and they could carry on without any restrictions, retiring only at the usual Government standard of 58 years or whatever. The theory was that after the age of 40, women were unfit to look after passengers because presumably they were no longer youthful, and therefore, unattractive.

The policy makers naturally did not think that the same rules should be applicable to men, and men could be old and fat and ugly, and inefficient to boot, but that was acceptable. As Minister, I fought tooth and nail to remove the discrimination and ensure that women were treated fairly. I argued that efficiency was a matter of standards and end results and could not be predicated upon gender. I issued several orders and the difficulty I had in getting them implemented was eloquent testimony to the chauvinistic mindsets at the highest levels of Government. However, the sufferings of the air hostesses is not my present concern and in any case requires a far more comprehensive articulation.

It is a matter of great worry for me that terrorism, law and order, and life and death issues which now threaten our very existence, have all but obliterated vital developmental issues from our thinking process. Civil Aviation is or should be an engine of growth for any modern economy. Just think of it… in today's fast growing world there is no longer any scope for a bullock-cart economy. People and goods have to move swiftly, or our economy will come to a standstill.

Jasmines grown in Madurai, or roses in Bangalore, have to move swiftly to their destination as they will otherwise perish. They cannot really wait to be transported on a train or lorry, and this is the case with a large number of goods. Thus civil aviation has an important role to play in a modern economy. Today, this is not the case because of the prohibitive cost of civil aviation both for passenger traffic and freight.

Ordinary passengers, businessmen and traders all find it impossible to factor the cost of air travel and freight into their business costs. In a properly structured economy, there should be synergy of transport and free and unimpeded movement of people and goods. In other words, traffic should flow freely between the airport, the sea port, and highways. This of course is exactly what is NOT happening in India.

As far as I am aware, people do not really know why civil aviation should remain the exclusive preserve of the rich. Why is air travel not really within the reach of the common man? I doubt if the travelling public is aware just how much air travel subsidises the national economy. A large part of the cost of the ticket is used by the government to defray the cost of the huge subsidy of diesel and kerosene used by economically disadvantaged citizens. Further, several years ago, the proceeds of an air travel tax imposed were meant to be used to improve airport infrastructure. This was never done and the tax collected simply vanished into the bottomless pit of government expenditure.

Some time ago, when passengers were put to serious inconvenience due to bunching of flights in a major airport, it was suggested that the domestic airport be used for international flights during peak hours. It was not possible to implement this simple proposal because the Immigration authorities did not have a spare computer to be used in the domestic airport! People are also unaware how much wasteful expenditure the airlines are forced to incur because of the lack of coordination between government departments.

In the Chennai airport for example, wide bodied jets cannot take off from the regular runway without making two unnecessary turns because of the existence of an unused, dilapidated ruin of a building belonging to the Defence Ministry. The building stands on Defence land and is unfit for any kind of use, not even as a rain shelter. But the Defence Ministry is unable to demolish the building and hand over the land to the Airport Authority. The result is that the airlines has to waste crores of rupees taxiing up and down the runway because they don’t have place to turn! Thus, even in the simplest of ways it is impossible to achieve coordination between government departments. And this is not merely a problem besetting this government… it has been the bane of every government since Independence. As a result, it is the long suffering taxpayer who has to bear the burden of the incompetence of government coordination.

Indian Airlines and Air India operate under appalling conditions. For the last several years, the fleet strength of the two airlines have remained the same, roughly 28 aircraft operated by Air India and about 54 operated by Indian Airlines. These aircraft are over burdened and overworked and their average age is about 25 years. This is as opposed to the average age of aircraft owned by the private airlines, which is not more than 4 to 6 years. Obviously, our national carriers desperately require a major infusion of capital outlay. For years now we have been aware of the urgent need to acquire new aircraft and phase out the old ones. There can be no rationalization of anything unless the fleet is overhauled.

In recent times, there has been a great deal of speculation over the open skies policy. This is a debate that is far too controversial to go into here. Suffice it to record the crucial importance of protecting and developing our national carrier, the importance of which should not be underestimated. We should remember that in times of great crisis, our national carriers have played a phenomenal role in safeguarding national interest. For example, during the Gulf War, it was Air India and Indian Airlines which came to the forefront and played a significant role in evacuating Indian citizens from war zones there. It is also Indian Airlines which flies to farflung remote areas of our country to serve the needs of Indian citizens in commercially unviable areas. It is time for us to put the role of our national carriers and of civil aviation in proper perspective because if we fail to do so, we will cause irreparable harm to our growth and development as a modern economy.


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