India’s aviation market which is set to become the third largest globally by the middle of next decade is creating huge employment opportunities but at the same time they forcing airlines to bring in international executives to handle scale. This rapid expansion in the Indian skies led by a double-digit growth could see airlines add as many as 50-75 planes a year to their combined fleet strength of just 500 planes today.  

This kind of growth being is unprecedented. And what makes matter paradoxically worse is that India simply does not have the expertise to run a 150 plus aircraft airline because the biggest airline so far has been Air India Ltd. Many airlines like IndiGo with a 140 plane fleet hope to become a 350 aircraft airline over the coming years while Jet Airways already has 115 planes and SpiceJet has about 200 on order.

Blending expat talent with local

In the past one and half years, IndiGo has flown in several expats from the US and other countries. These people with experience in managing airlines with a 1000 aircraft fleet are helping beef up its systems and processes and remove inefficiencies. The airline ended up hiring these executives after its operational performance showed signs of stress as scale grew dramatically. In many critical departments, the Gurugram-based low-cost carrier has attached foreign executives with in-house talent. When these experienced executives set up the processes they will move on allowing younger mid-career professionals to take over the baton.

Mumbai based Jet Airways which has a significant international footprint compared with IndiGo’s domestic dominance is also bringing in international talent. The airline recently hired Vinay Dube as its new CEO. Dube comes from Delta Airlines Inc where he led the turnaround in Asia Pacific markets, restructured route network, established strategic partnerships, worked on brand-building and brought about a transformation in the work culture. Historically Jet, the oldest private Indian airline, has always hired international talent for top roles. The airline will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year and has been struggling because of an onslaught by budget airlines over the past few years.

Short term courses and management training

Airlines in India have also started hiring people from top engineering and business schools like IITs and IIMs but mostly after they have had some experience working with organizations. They are then trained for aviation-specific roles in finance and aircraft leasing. Many airlines also provide employees with executive education at their own expense. Existing employees are given short-duration management courses in tie-ups with Harvard Business School and ISB in Hyderabad. Some of these courses are short-term, running for a week while others are offline running for six months with some portions being online and some at the campus. 

Airlines also bring in management trainers to their offices and train people on the best practices to enhance their understanding of the aviation environment and its implications from a leadership and management perspective, help solve complex problems and improve soft skills.

Institutional support

Besides these courses, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the largest airline global grouping, conducts several courses both locally and abroad to train aviation professionals. These include in areas like operations, quality, environment, regulation & law, fares & ticketing, safety, finance & accounting, sales & marketing, HR & training, security.

Not only that IATA trains the private sector professionals it has also entered into an alliance with the Indian government under which it trains government professionals on the best practices internationally. Under this alliance, government professionals who work in aviation are taken abroad for a few weeks and learn new skills and latest developments in global aviation, especially in international regulation.

India has also launched its first aviation university this year named the Rajiv Gandhi National Aviation University (RGNAU) to facilitate and promote aviation studies and research. Based in Rae Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh, RGNAU conducts Executive Development Programmes and Management Development Programmes for the industry. The Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIMB) and Toulouse Business School (TBS) also run a Management Programme on Aviation which is now in its third edition. The people selected for this course have an average work experience of about 15 years and they also get a chance to travel to Airbus’ base in Toulouse (France) and Boeing’s base in Seattle (USA) to see the final assembly line of an aircraft besides other experiences. 

Internationally, the Global Aviation Leadership program offered in collaboration between McGill University, School of Continuing Studies and l’École Nationale de l’Aviation Civile (ENAC) draws a lot of Indian students. Many McGill students have gone on to work with International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the UN watchdog on aviation safety, as also on to senior positions with Indian airlines. 

Still, there is a steep uphill curve that Indian airlines need to climb to be world class when it comes to international talent and best practices. They also face two big hurdles in bringing and retaining international executives : One, experienced international executives do not prefer leaving their home country and working out of India easily and second, many prefer to work with Middle Eastern airlines like Emirates, Qatar and Etihad who have far deeper pockets and can allow for many more perks. 

Air India’s future

India’s oldest airline, Air India, has 23000 employees to manage its operations and subsidiaries but it has been struggling.

The airline, which till the 1990s a preferred option for business school graduates no more attracts that talent because of a thriving private sector. Most of the top hires it hired from reputed schools like Jamnalal Bajaj among others have retired in the past four years. Because of its losses, government mismanagement and debt worries it has also not been allowed to induct management executives. In a nutshell, Air India has more staff in areas it does not need and there are areas of strategic planning, commercial and others that need talent induction.

 An expert committee led by former Supreme Court judge DM Dharmadhikari had said in 2012 that the airline needs to formulate a Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) for its employees so that excess manpower does not unduly increase the wage bill and depress productivity. “This can be an attractive option for about 7000 employees who are in the zone of retirement in the next five years. It also has the potential to increase the sense of belongingness, ownership, commitment and dedication of existing employees to strengthen the Company,” it had noted. That did not work out as that could have itself cost Rs 1000 crore. The government has now decided to privatize the airline after infusing about Rs 25,000 crore in equity in the last one decade.

Former chairman of the airline Ashwani Lohani had made his frustration very clear when in a July letter this year when he noted that, “Ownership changes that we expect at Air India would also lead to a change in the working environment and the work culture. The complexities of working in a PSU (public sector unit) environment would get replaced by a corporate culture, a culture in which merit would get a better deal..This should enable a full realization of the inherent potential of your airline besides creating an environment that would indeed be conducive for all of us who are used to working hard with commitment and integrity.” Lohani was among few chairman who fought hard to hire more talent from top business schools but wasn’t allowed to by the government. 

The hope now is that with the upcoming privatization there would be better management in place and the airline will be able to take on its nimble rivals with the speed that is so required in the airline sector.