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What good comes from putting Pradeep Singh Kharola at helm of Air India?

Kharola's entry in Air India is taking place just when the national carrier prepares for its second disinvestment attempt, where neither his turnaround abilities can be used.

twitter-logo Manu Kaushik   New Delhi     Last Updated: December 5, 2017  | 19:58 IST
What good comes from putting Pradeep Singh Kharola at helm of Air India?

It's a promising start of innings for Pradeep Singh Kharola, the Karnataka cadre IAS officer, who's just about to take charge at the state-owned Air India. The national carrier topped the list of quietest and cleanest airlines in the quarterly ranking of the second-busiest airport in the world - Heathrow airport. Air India primarily flies Boeing Dreamliners to Heathrow that has 20-25 per cent lesser emission footprint and has a smaller noise effect. Its private sector rival Jet Airways is ranked 41 in the listing of 50 airlines.

Kharola's entry in to the Air India is taking place just when the national carrier prepares for its second disinvestment attempt in less than two decades. In June, finance minister Arun Jaitley had said that the disinvestment of the loss-making Air India is on the cards. According to Jaitley, private carriers already have 86-87 per cent market share, and could also handle 100 per cent flying.

While Kharola is yet to assume charge at the national carrier, his appointment seems inexplicable given that the current Air India head Rajiv Bansal was given a three-month extension on November 24, four days prior to the Kharola's announcement. Kharola is believed to be a turnaround expert. What's the point in appointing a turnaround expert when the government has already decided to sell Air India? In the past, several attempts to turn around the airline have failed miserably. The need of having a turnaround expert is long gone.

At this stage, the role of the Air India chief is, strictly speaking, restricted. He may not have leeway to make significant changes in the airline. His job is to just to keep the airline's market share intact (at 13-14 per cent), and do some minor tinkering here and there. Not just for this reason alone, Bansal would have continued with that job because he was actually preparing the ground for the airline's disinvestment.

For instance, there are reports that Bansal had constituted five project teams - in areas like finance; human resources; properties and facilities; bilateral slots and commercial agreements; and secretarial and procedural matters - to look into the different parts of the disinvestment.

As the new CMD, Kharola will have to start over again, and get acquaint with the gigantic structure of the national carrier. Air India is a behemoth with a host of sizable subsidiaries under its fold, including airline operations (Air India, Alliance Air and Air India Express), maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) operations, hospitality (Centaur Hotels), and airport services (Air India SATS).

Kharola's role as a key negotiator from Air India's side to talk with the potential suitors looks improbable either. Given the national importance of Air India, the potential buyers will most likely deal with the ministers and bureaucrats in the aviation ministry. The intent of Kharola's appointment may not be clear as yet but he's got his work cut out for him.

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