The news of former Turkish Airways Chairperson Ilker Ayci declining to take on the reins at Air India has not left many within India’s aviation circles surprised. Speculation over Ayci’s fate abounded once news reports hinting his proximity to Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s family and people linked to extremist groups began emerging in the mainstream and social media here.
Although quite a few of those stories were exercises in kite flying, it is to be expected when the company in question is Air India, a brand that millions of Indians continue to take immense pride in despite its earlier decline under government control.
At New Delhi’s Rajiv Gandhi Bhawan – home to the country’s Civil Aviation Ministry – senior officials were often heard debating the complications that may arise following a security review of Ayci’s application by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). Security clearance from MHA is mandatory during the appointment of key management personnel in strategically sensitive sectors like civil aviation, information and broadcasting, telecoms, petroleum, currency, banking, shipping, ports, etc.
In a carefully worded private statement that went viral on Tuesday, Ayci noted: “Since the announcement, I have been carefully following news in some sections of the Indian media attempting to colour my appointment with undesirable colours.” Tata Sons had announced Ayci’s appointment as the airline’s managing director and CEO on February 14.
“As a business leader who has always prioritised professional credo and more importantly, the happiness and well-being of my family above all else, I have come to the conclusion that it would not be a feasible or an honourable decision to accept the position in the shadow of such narrative,” he added.
Thanking Tata Group chairman Natarajan Chandrasekaran for considering him for the role, he said that he had apprised him (Chandrasekaran) of the decision before going public with it.
“Had Ayci and Tata Group gone ahead with their plans, the proposal would have been dead on arrival. My guess is that geopolitics has perhaps played a major role in the way the issue has unfolded,” an aviation consultant told Business Today requesting anonymity.
Confirming the development to Business Today, a Tata Group spokesperson declined to offer any further details on the matter.
Finding quick replacement
As per his terms of appointment, Ayci was to take charge in his new role by April 1.
“The development in a way is good for both sides as it will avoid the likely embarrassment that might have been caused due to the possibility of the home ministry not according clearance to the appointment,” observed aviation industry veteran and former executive director Air India, Jitendra Bhargava.
“It’s unlikely that the Tata management wasn’t aware of his past connections, but they might have thought that it wouldn’t become much of an issue while making an offer to him. Very importantly, this episode also shows that the current government is wary of appearing to go soft on the question of national security amid an increasingly uncertain geopolitical environment,” an industry analyst said off-record.
Air India formally returned to the Tata Group fold on January 26 after a nearly 69-year-long gap. In the immediate aftermath of the handover, several prominent names from global civil aviation had started floating in the public domain for the CEO’s role. The Ayci episode will bring to bear immense pressure on Bombay House to finalise and announce a credible replacement soon.
“One sincerely hopes that Tatas have an alternate name in mind as Air India needs a CEO urgently. It’s already been more than a month since the group took control of the company from the government, and without a competent chief executive in place, the appointment of a full-fledged management team may also possibly get delayed,” asserted Bhargava.
Experts in the aviation domain told Business Today separately that the delay in the appointment of CEO might have already set back restructuring plans at Air India by up to two months.
With the acquisition of Air India and its low-cost subsidiary, Air India Express, Tata Group now operates four airline brands in the country. The other two being Vistara and AirAsia India. If the fleets of the four carriers are consolidated, it comes to 233 Boeing and Airbus aircraft in varying configurations. In sheer numbers, this is second only to the all-Airbus fleet of the country’s largest airline IndiGo, which operates 278 aircraft.
The airline’s handover to the Tata Group was widely welcomed by both employees and the public on grounds that only the salt-to-software group could successfully turnaround a company it had originally founded. Any further delay or another goof-up in the appointment of a CEO may, therefore, badly hurt that perception.
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