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Air India revival to put new CEO Campbell Wilson's leadership skills to extreme test

Air India revival to put new CEO Campbell Wilson's leadership skills to extreme test

With time being a luxury, the newly appointed CEO of the national flag carrier will have to hit the ground running.

Campbell Wilson, CEO & managing director, Air India Campbell Wilson, CEO & managing director, Air India

With the government recently granting security clearance to Air India's CEO & managing director Campbell Wilson, he can now go full steam to restore the glory of the once iconic airline. Wilson (50), the former head of Singapore Airlines' low-cost subsidiary Scoot was appointed to the role in May.

A master of commerce in business administration, Wilson joined Singapore Airlines in Auckland in 1996. In a career spanning more than 26 years, he has worked in diverse areas like distribution, e-commerce, merchandising, brand and marketing, and global sales. He has also worked in Canada, Hong Kong and Japan.

Welcoming Wilson's appointment, commentator and former executive director of Air India, Jitender Bhargava told Business Today that a lack of professional leadership had led to virtually no improvement at the national flag carrier ever since the Tatas regained control six months ago.

"Realising that group's other two airline brands Vistara and AirAsia India were being largely managed by their partners, the focus was on the appointment of a professional for initiation of action to steer Air India out of turbulent waters," said Bhargava.

People often overlook the fact that Tata group's association with aviation was several decades ago and no one in the current management team had the requisite experience in the industry. The primary challenge before Wilson would thus be to bring on board a strong team of professionals.

"One sincerely hopes he can institute a team of experienced professionals soon as the task before him is herculean. One shouldn't overlook the fact that Air India in the past two decades suffered enormously even as the market became intensely competitive," added Bhargava.

So, what key actions can be expected from Wilson since Air India's unique problems are just too well known? In his 2013 book, The Descent of Air India, Bhargava identified several areas that require redressal on priority.

"It shouldn't take Campbell time to identify the pain points. However, as time is of the essence, he will have to get a team that goes about introducing productive and customer-focused practices in the airline at the earliest," averred Bhargava.

Wilson is reported to have been actively trying to understand the airline's structure and challenges for some weeks pending the regulatory approval of his appointment.

Hit the ground running

Another industry analyst told BT that given the time constraint, Wilson will be required to act expeditiously.

"Any new CEO would want to build his team but in his [Wilson's] case even this is too much of a luxury. There is just no time… He will have to hit the ground running and that means getting Air Asia India and Air India Express merged into Air India," said the analyst requesting anonymity. "It is possible that he may use some outside help as mergers do result in some hard decisions on people. Once the merger is done, he may be in a better position to appoint a more permanent team."

It must be noted that following the initial euphoria resulting from the long-awaited takeover of Air India by the Tata Group, people have been left a bit disillusioned.

"Barring a few cosmetic changes, action on systemic overhaul is yet to take place at the airline. That was, perhaps, on hold due to the absence of a CEO," opined Bhargava.

Another area that will be of special interest to Wilson is the early implementation of appropriate technologies and systems.

"The importance of systems enough can't be emphasised enough. Air India is a shell. It's virtually a living skeleton that needs to be rehabilitated with IT systems in every single area," the analyst said.

Although the airline has implemented mission-critical technologies such as the passenger service system (PSS), there is more to be done.

"The good thing is that Wilson will be familiar with both Amadeus and Navitaire, the systems used by Air India and AirAsia India, respectively. Air India Express uses Radixx, which has a 2026 contract expiry. That impedes full merger unless they decide to terminate the Air India Express' PSS contract early," the analyst pointed out.

Test of leadership skills

Meanwhile, industry veterans like Bhargava are quick to point out that one must be cognisant of other aspects of Wilson's appointment.

"As the chief executive of Singapore Airlines' low-cost subsidiary Scoot, he is better versed with the LCC model and he doesn't also have experience working in the Indian market which has peculiarities of its own. It will, therefore, take more than Tatas' deep pockets and intent to transform the airline," he declared.

Add to that the fact that the country's aviation sector has no record of a successful merger between two carriers. In the past, big-ticket mergers like Air Deccan-Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways-Air Sahara floundered. Similarly, the merger of government-controlled Air India-Indian Airlines was often blamed for pushing the former deeper into the red. Incidentally, all three mergers happened in 2007.

"On the other hand, the US industry is an expert in inorganic growth through mergers. It may be prudent for the Air India management to consider taking their help even though will be an expensive proposition," said the analyst. "A merger between Tata Group airlines is still very well positioned and comparatively far simpler as the majority of the pain was absorbed during the Air India-Indian Airlines merger."

The airline is also reported to be in talks for leasing 4 lakh sq ft office space in the Vatika complex in Gurugram. This exercise to synergise Tata group's aviation assets under one roof will be overseen by Wilson.

Bhargava felt that the coming months will put Wilson's leadership skills to a tough test.

"What is most expected from the newly appointed Air India CEO are qualities of inspiring leadership and an ability to identify weaknesses and provide solutions for them," said Bhargava. "As an ardent Air India well-wisher, I wish Campbell all the success in making the brand the airline of the first choice for passengers!"