Skift Take

Air India CEO Campbell Wilson has lofty ambitions for Air India. Once underinvested by the Indian government, Air India now 470 aircraft on order and hired thousands of new employees as part of an effort to turn its operations around.

Air India CEO Campbell Wilson is undertaking a massive project: completely overhauling India’s newly privatized 92-year-old flag carrier after decades of underinvestment by the Indian government. The average age of an Air India employee was 54 years old. The airline had such a dated email system that its employees started using Gmail.

But that’s the old Air India, according to Wilson. Wilson, who previously worked for the widely-renowned Singapore Airlines, thinks he can bring the same level of service and reputation to Air India — but it’ll take time. Air India’s transformation is built on a five-year plan known as “Vihaan.AI.” And 18 months into it, Air India has already placed a historic order for 470 aircraft and hired 5,000 new employees, lowering the average employee age from 54 to 35.

Here are the highlights from Wilson’s interview at the Skift India Summit 2024. Quotes have been lightly edited and shortened for clarity. Watch the full interview below.

Air India Is Fully Overhauling Its Operations as Part of Its Transformation.

Wilson: The intention and the ambition always was to restore Air India to being a top tier world-class airline. This whole transformation took off probably about 18 months ago when we launched our “Vihaan” program, which is a five-year transformation. The first six months was really triage, trying to address all of the accumulated sins of the past and clean up so we could at least look forward. Then the subsequent year, which is just about to finish, has been about putting a lot of the foundations, whether it be systems, people, processes, premises, equipment in place to really enable us now to take that bold leap forward and bring Air India to where we want it to be.

Campbell Hopes the Merger Between Air India and Vistara Will Be Seamless.

Wilson: I think we’ve been very clear that Vistara in the long term will become Air India. The Air India brand is 92 years old. It is recognized around the world. It has a very strong — if recently tarnished —heritage. But Air India is the nation’s brand, and so I think it would be foolish for us not to play on that strength.

Now, Vistara has a very, very strong reputation and very strong awareness in India, but not so much globally. So yes, we want to maintain elements of Vistara in the future of Air India. They will certainly be there in people and process. They’re there in some respect in our new brand attributes. A lot of the things that we are doing are modeled on what Vistara does, but we will eventually be collapsing the two. As I say, we won’t be rushing it, probably sometime later this year, sometime next year.

Even Though It’s 92-Years-Old, Air India Is Almost Like a “Start-up.”

Wilson: I’ve described it as a start-up because really had decades of under-investment. I think I’d spoken previously that the email system in the company was so dysfunctional that people use Gmail. We were the last airline in the world on a particular passenger service reservation system, the owner of which shut down and kicked us off. We were the last company in the world on a particular SAP enterprise resource management platform.

So from an IT perspective, it just had to be completely rebuilt from scratch.

The Average Age of an Air India Employee Went From 54 to 35.

Wilson: Now, in terms of people, there had been no recruitment of non-flying people for 15 years. The average age was 54, with the retirement age of 58. We’ve been able to inject a whole bunch of new people into the business by necessity, but also for their competency, and bring the average age from 54 down to 35.

Many of [the older employees] are retiring every month to the extent that we’ve tried to help people with this transition because transitioning from government way of working to private sector way of working is traumatic for people sometimes.

And so we’d offer people voluntary retirement, and a couple of thousand people have taken that. So it’s been a transition that has been very smooth, very consensual, but also hugely transformative in terms of culture and capabilities. And so the IT people, I mean, there are many other examples, but in so many dimensions, we are as much a start-up as we are a transformation.

Air India Is Taking in a New Aircraft Every 6 Days.

Wilson: If you look at the net increase in the number of aircraft available to us, it’s well in the 550 sort of range. And so that is powering a rate of growth, which is almost unprecedented in the industry. We are taking a new aircraft every six days. We have for the last six months, and we’ll continue to do so for probably the next 12. And you can just imagine that scale of growth, and what needs to come together in the organization to support that safely and commercially successfully as well as administratively.

Wilson Thinks Air India Has a Competitive Advantage Over the Many Airlines That Have Their Sights Set on India.

Wilson: It’s no wonder that some relatively small geographies or population bases want to tap larger, faster growing ones to augment what they don’t have themselves. With respect to some of the places that you mentioned, they wouldn’t even make the top 20 in terms of population of city in the India context. And then we also have to look how many people are actually going to that city as opposed to going through that city. In the cases you cite, upwards of 70 to 90% of people are not going to that place, they’re going through that place.

Those passengers can be served by an Indian carrier or indeed a carrier from the ultimate destination market. And I think given the state of Indian airlines, and the fact that they’re very nascent and newly privatized and the market is developing professional modality, I think it’s appropriate for India that time be accorded for the maturity to come, for the growth to come, for the 470 aircraft that we’ve purchased to come, and for us to connect India non-stopped to many places around the world, so people have a much faster, much more convenient, much less emissive way to get from A to B.

Delhi or Bombay? Wilson Envisions Multiple Hubs in India.

Wilson: This is the wonder of India. India can be home of at least three hubs, and in addition to those three hubs, plenty of point-to-point services. Really, there is not many markets like India in the world. If you take continental Europe, that’s probably a similar sort of market.

If you take North America, that’s a similar sort of market. Beyond that, China maybe. There’s only less than a handful of markets that offer the same opportunity here.

As Middle Eastern Carriers Focus on India, Wilson Says Air India Needs to Improve Its Brand to Compete.

Wilson: We have to work with private sector airports. We have to work with state regulators and border agents that are not yet perhaps fully cognizant of customer experience as a metric of performance. And everyone’s trying hard, but India is coming from a different place with a different environment and sort of level of cohesion. How do we compete with it? Well, I think improving product obviously, improving connectivity, flying more places, improving brand reputation, technology, service, loyalty program.

It’s not convenient to get on a flight for three or four hours, land in the wee hours of the morning, sit in an airport for an hour and a half or two hours or three hours or longer, and then get on another flight to get to Europe when you could have gone nonstop in eight-and-a-half hours.

If we can get the basics right and be a credible airline — of course we’re not going to get every person in the market — but I think we’re going to get the time sensitive, the discerning, the premium traveler who values the experience that we are going to be able to provide.

While Air India Will Operate as a Low-Cost-Carrier on Domestic Routes, Wilson Says There’s More Opportunity in International Flying.

Wilson: Domestic, India is largely going to be [a low-cost-carrier]. I think our opportunity is in that international full service space, particularly medium- and long-haul where India has not been well served by Indian carriers simply because we didn’t have the fleet, didn’t have the capital, didn’t have the ability to plan long term.

We’re at the point of privatization, Air India operated all of the wide-body commercial aircraft in India, and that was only 43 aircraft for a population of 1.3 billion, 1.4 billion. Singapore has 150 wide-body aircraft. Dubai has 250 wide-body aircraft. That gives you a sense of how grossly underserved the Indian market was by Indian airlines. And that is the opportunity that we are working to pursue, and that’s why we’re making aircraft orders of the size we are.

Air India Has Hired Around 5,000 People in the Past 18 Months.

Wilson: In addition to aircraft health, there’s a lot of systems that we need to put in place, IT systems that talk to each other, maintenance planning systems, rostering systems, disruption management systems, passenger handling systems.

So a lot of these are now coming into place and being properly integrated, and then we have to start using them more effectively. Then there’s people, and people that have the right skills that understand how to run a complex multi-hub airline that wasn’t really present in the old Air India. We are having to bring that, train it, put it into place. And then finally, there’s incentive.

In a non-private sector organization, there were no job descriptions, there were no metrics of success, there were no rewards for doing well, there were no consequences for not doing well. And so you end up with an organization where there is a malaise and a sort of “why care?”

Now, we have to change the culture. We are changing the culture, so that is a performance-oriented airline that takes things like OTP and punctuality and service seriously, and that’s not an easy lift, but the people have really risen to the occasion, and this huge ingestion of 5,000 people over the last 18 months, two years is really helping catalyze the change.

The Maharaja Lives On.

Wilson: The rumors of the Maharajah’s death were greatly exaggerated. The Maharajah does have a place in the future Air India. It has a place in a few dimensions.

One, in terms of an ethos of service and of culture and of hospitality and of warmth.

Secondly, it may have a future in terms of name. There are various applications of the Maharajah name that make perfect sense, but I won’t let any cats out of the bag.

And thirdly, as a physical device. I think we’ve shown on the A350, very nice service ware, glassware, cutlery that uses an elevated stylistic form of the Maharajah to really denote class. It’s not going to be mass market cartoon, Mickey Mouse application. This is not that airline anymore. But Maharajah has a place and deserves a place, but it must be the right place.


Skift India Report

The Skift India Report is your go-to newsletter for all news related to travel, tourism, airlines, and hospitality in India.

Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch

Tags: air india, airbus, campbell wilson, delhi, mumbai, sis2024, skift india summit

Up Next

Loading next stories