By Rohit Vaid
New Delhi - Air India's global expansion plans, along with the induction of more aircraft and pilots, would not be hindered by the government's recent decision to divest its stake in the national carrier, the airline's top official has said.
The "painful decision" of divestment would "open doors to a better future for the airline and its employees", Ashwani Lohani, Chairman and Managing Director of Air India, said.
Lohani said he had been in "constant touch" with employees to allay their apprehensions over the divestment process.
"I have been in touch with employees through WhatsApp, e-mail, and by having one-on-one interactions. I have asked them -- why should we slacken from our end? We should continue to do our best," he said.
"As and when a decision is taken on the divestment we will make sure that employees' genuine interests are put forth to the government," Lohani added.
Elaborating on the company's international and national expansion plans at its New Delhi-based HQ -- Airlines House -- Lohani said: "Our expansion plans are on track. We will start a new destination each month till October. A new route to Stockholm will be started in August, followed, a month later, to Copenhagen. In October, we will start our New Delhi-Los Angeles flight operations."
"We also plan to start operations to Tel Aviv in Israel and Dallas and Houston in the US. Last year, we started operations to four new destinations and this fiscal we plan to introduce seven new flights," Lohani said.
On August 4, the airline commenced flight operations from pilgrimage destination Varanasi to Colombo, Sri Lanka. In July, it had started a direct connection between New Delhi and Washington.
Last year, the airline added four new international destinations, including New Delhi-San Francisco, Delhi-Vienna, Delhi-Madrid and Ahmedabad-London.
According to Lohani, the airline might consider starting a flight to Nairobi, Kenya. Also on the cards are commercial operations on the Guwahati-Bangkok and Guwahati-Kunming (China) routes.
At present, Air India has a network of more than 30 destinations across the US, Europe, Australia, Far-East and South-East Asia, and the Gulf regions. It gets over 65 per cent of its revenue from overseas operations and has deployed most of its assets on foreign routes.
In addition to its international expansion plans, the airline hopes to introduce what is being touted as the "Necklace" or "Garland" flight on the domestic network from September-October.
The flight will start from Kolkata in the morning to Raipur from where it will head out to Indore and then on to Ahmedabad and Jaipur. Its final port of call will be New Delhi in the evening.
When asked about the extra aircraft and crew required for the current expansion drive, Lohani said: "We have already hired around 250 pilots and more are being inducted. The same is the case with inducting cabin crew. Aircraft acquisition on lease basis is also going according to plan."
The airline hopes to add around 15 more aircraft to its fleet via the lease model by this fiscal-end. Most of these aircraft will be turbo-prop planes which will be used to connect the hinterland with metropolitan cities.
Currently, the airline has more than 115 aircraft in its fleet -- a mix of wide-body Boeing B777s, B747s, B787 Dreamliner aircraft, and the narrow body Airbus A321s, A320s and A319 planes, apart from turbo-props.
The AI chief said that cost-saving measures undertaken, along with aggressive focus on international markets and route rationalisation efforts, are expected to raise the operating profit of the airline to around Rs 150 crore from Rs 110 crore in 2015-16.
"These figures might be inconsequential, but the significance they hold is the fact that a turnaround is taking place," the airline's chief said.
The airline might be experiencing a "slow-but-sure" turnaround; however its massive debt of over Rs 50,000 crore accumulated over the years has been one of the biggest obstacles to its financial viability, besides an ill-planned merger.
Lohani said: "We would have been in a much, much better position, if the debt situation was not so. The situation would have been different."
Lohani maintained that employees remain the most important element for success. Outside his office, which is studded with priceless pieces of art that have been collected by the airline over years, a slew of employees from cabin crew to pilots await their turn to meet him.
The airline has over 11,000 employees, whereas at the group level, including its subsidiaries, the number of staffers goes up to about 20,000.