01/08/2016 12:41 AM IST | Updated 07/08/2016 9:47 AM IST

Is Ashwani Lohani Really 'Turnaround Man' For Air India?

Mr. Lohani will complete one year at the helm of Air India at the end of this month, so has he made good on his boast that he just needed one year to turn around Air India?

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Ashwani Lohani, the chairman-cum-managing director (CMD) of Air India, wrote a missive to the airline's staff recently, in which he instructed that no free tickets were to be given to his family members. He added that those who tried to upgrade his relatives from economy class to business risked punishment.

This stance is in sharp contrast with the usual practice. When his predecessor, Rohit Nandan, was in office, it used to be a routine affair to upgrade the seats of his relatives from the economy class to business (the tariff of which is five times higher than that of the economy class). As a Mail Today report explained:

According to the rules of the Department of Public Enterprises (DPE), any IAS or other allied services officer who is posted on deputation to Air India is not an employee of airline and is not entitled to free tickets for personal use or for family members. Violation of DPE guidelines is more the norm in Air India; even CMD Rohit Nandan had in January this year availed of free business class seats for family and as well as extended family members.

It was not surprising that Rohit Nandan had placated the chief vigilance officer of Air India, the official watchdog of the government to check corruption in this public sector behemoth, with free tickets. The same Mail Today report went on to say:

"Documents accessed by Mail Today reveal that the chief vigilance officer (CVO) of Air India, Sundari Subramanian Pujari, a 1980 batch Indian Defence Estates Service (IDES) officer on deputation with the airline, has booked executive class Delhi-Sydney-Delhi return tickets for her son Adit Subramaniam Pujari and daughter-in-law Kriti Awasthi. These tickets are upgradable to first class.

The son and daughter-in-law of the CVO have been booked on an AI flight to Sydney on June 3 with a return ticket for June 21. These tickets would have cost ordinary mortals over ₹5 lakh."

The report further said, "Air India which operates its brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the Delhi-Sydney-Delhi route is incurring losses of ₹70 lakh every day." This has mostly to do with the largesse bestowed by Air India top brass on itself.

Will this change under Mr Lohani's stewardship?

In a blog post quoted by the Hindustan Times, Mr Lohani recently said: "It makes me sad when the common employee is often blamed for the ills of the organisation.... Whereas the real reason for the debacle lies elsewhere, in my opinion, on the head honcho."

That is indeed a correct assessment. But then will Ashwani Lohani, the head honcho, dare to tread on the toes of the vested interests and make a difference to Air India's fortunes?

It is quite possible that Mr Lohani will succeed in his mission. There are two reasons: firstly, because he has given indications of personal honesty and professional transparency in his conduct; secondly (and this is more important), because he enjoys the strong backing of the political establishment.

The very fact that Mr Lohani, a railway engineering service officer, has been entrusted with the gigantic task of turning around the fortunes of the public sector aviation giant is an indication of the trust that the current political leadership has in him.

When his appointment was announced last year, it surprised many as this high-profile position has been generally occupied by elite Indian Administrative Service officers. Rohit Nandan was a senior IAS officer, as was his predecessor, Arvind Jadhav.

It seems that Mr Lohani is a competent bureaucrat who gets what he desires, even if it is usually in a BJP dispensation.

Why was a railway service officer, who had never worked with Air India, brought in to head this public sector airline, many asked.

Some said that it had something to do with his affinity with the saffron establishment.

After all, the first BJP-led NDA government at the centre led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee had appointed Mr Lohani, then a relatively junior railway officer, as the director of tourism and in a couple of years promoted him as the chairman and managing director (CMD) of the Indian Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), a position which has mostly been a close preserve of the senior IAS officers.

After his stint at the Centre (it came to an end when the NDA government was voted out of power in 2004), Mr Lohani was selected by Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the BJP Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, to head the MP Tourism Development Corporation, again a prize posting reserved for the IAS officers.

After several years at the helm of tourism in Madhya Pradesh (he was serving as the commissioner of tourism in the state before coming to the Centre last year), Mr. Lohani was catapulted to a national role again, with the formation of a second BJP-led NDA government at the Centre under the leadership of Narendra Modi.

While that makes Mr. Lohani's saffron affiliation unmistakable, it should not take away from his formidable reputation as a go-getter, a doer.

His social media profiles tell us that during his first stint at the Centre, Mr Lohani had made the perennially loss-making Ashoka Hotel, the public sector's five-star hotel chain, a profitable concern.

Mr Lohani's success in Madhya Pradesh, where he spent much longer years, is apparently even more noteworthy -- he turned around the fortunes of the ailing tourism sector in the state and won many laurels.

It seems that Mr Lohani is a competent bureaucrat who gets what he desires, even if it is usually in a BJP dispensation.

Way back in 2009, when the Congress-led UPA was in power at the Centre, Mr Lohani, who is active on social media, had written in a blog post, quoted here:

"Having headed a large hospitality sector CPSU (Central Public Sector Undertaking) in the past, and now a state PSU successfully, I have acquired a fair amount of insight into successful running of PSUs.... If given a chance, of course, a year is all it would take for a turnaround even for a mammoth organisation like Air India".

Mr Lohani had a dream to be the "turnaround man" at Air India; as soon as the BJP stormed back to power in 2014, and the Modi government quickly acted to make his dream come true. After the due process, he was given the top job last year.

Mr. Lohani will complete one year at the helm of Air India at the end of this month, so has he made good on his boast that he just needed one year to turn around Air India?

One can hope that his integrity, efficiency and strong political backing will make him the "turnaround man" for Air India...

In a series of interviews to the media, Mr. Lohani has claimed success: that Air India -- the merged entity that came into existence in 2007 -- earned its first operational profit in 2015-16 under his stewardship. (Mind you, it is just the operational profit for the year; the accumulated debt of Air India is over ₹50,000 crore even after the infusion of the bailout package of ₹30,000 crore by the Central government.)

Well, Mr. Lohani's claim could be a half-truth. Mr. Nandan, Mr. Lohani's predecessor, had also claimed in August last year, during the last days of his extended term at Air India, that his four-year-long efforts to streamline the functioning of Air India would yield results in the financial year 2015-16. But he was shifted during the middle of the financial year – Mr. Nandan was at the helm for five months and Mr. Lohani for seven months. So, at best, the honours of operational efficiency could be shared by both of them (though the real cause of the good showing could be because of the plummeting oil prices, not because of any extraordinary administrative measures undertaken by Mr. Nandan or Mr. Lohani).

However, credit must go to Mr. Lohani for placing a premium on personal and professional honesty. One can hope that his integrity, efficiency and strong political backing will make him the "turnaround man" for Air India by the time he completes his term at its helm in 2018, but the journey is likely to be a bumpy one.

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