Those who know him say Aditya Ghosh has an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.
While in college, his friend’s father – who turned out to be Jyoti Sagar, founder of legal firm J Sagar Associates – was so impressed with Aditya’s curiosity that he offered the youngster a job as his Executive Assistant. Aditya rose swiftly at J Sagar and was soon handling important clients, Rahul Bhatia’s InterGlobe Enterprises, being one of them.
In 2004, as Bhatia was readying to launch a low-cost airline IndiGo, he roped in Aditya, now 28, as his General Counsel. It was an important responsibility. Bhatia was in talks with aircraft maker Airbus to buy 100 A320s. Aditya once again showed his mettle in handling the legal aspect of the order, the biggest the domestic aviation industry had ever seen at the time. Bhatia was impressed.
Four years later and post IndiGo’s launch, when the airline’s founding President and CEO Bruce Ashby resigned, Bhatia surprised everyone by naming Aditya as the successor.
“One thought Siddhant Sharma (the SpiceJet CEO who had resigned just before Ashby’s departure, almost in a synchronized move) would take over,” says a senior executive from the industry who didn’t want to be named.
Lending credence to the belief was Ghosh being the ‘acting CEO’ for the first few months. He did enough during those months to convince Bhatia about his worthiness for the top job. In August 2008, Bhatia crowned Ghosh as the IndiGo President. The President was all of 32 years old.
“It mattered that he was involved with the airline’s launch almost from the start. And sometimes, you are in the right place, at the right time,” said the executive quoted above.
But the past few months have been a turbulent ride for the normally unflappable Ghosh. Just when IndiGo seemed to have regained the best in on-time performance tag (after Aditya publicly bickered with rivals in early 2017), SpiceJet snatched the crown again November 2017. That month also brought the worst public relation disaster for the airline.
First, badminton star PV Sindhu took to Twitter to complain about a ‘bad experience’ on an IndiGo flight. Many of the Twitterattis responded, sharing their own episodes with the airline.
A couple of days later, news emerged that IndiGo had fired an employee who shot a video of two of his colleagues manhandling a customer. The two employees were however spared. “That was the mistake that the management led by Aditya did. Instead of firing the whistleblower, they should have sacked the boys who were manhandling the customer. That is just not acceptable in aviation, or any other customer-centric business,” says a former employee of InterGlobe.
Aditya wrote to the Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju, apologising for the incident. But that was not enough. In a 26-page report on “Issues related to improving customers’ satisfaction of airlines” in January, a Parliamentary Panel singled out IndiGo. It said: “The Committee observes that the problems affecting the airlines are not personal; it is institutional. An institution like Indigo has to develop a consumer friendly approach in dealing with their passengers. The Committee believes that being a leader in market share, Indigo needs to look inward and find out the reasons for the discourteous attitude and rude and indifferent behavior of their employees, whether it is their cabin crew or the ground staff. The Committee emphasizes that the arrogant behavior of employees should stop.”
Furthermore, the Committee didn’t take kindly to Aditya’s deposition that the industry is facing a talent issue. “Our Government schools and colleges produce the best students of the country and we have a duty to nurture and promote such students to achieve their full potential. If a particular airline has grown exponentially, they should deploy a proportionate amount to the training of their staff instead of misbehaving and manhandling the passengers or blaming the youngsters from Tier II and III cities and Government schools… "
The controversies seem to have taken some sheen off the airline’s shares. The InterGlobe Aviation stock has lagged that of peers SpiceJet and Jet Airways in the last one year. While shares of rivals have nearly doubled, InterGlobe shares rose by a more modest 46 per cent.
It is not easy being a market leader. “It takes a hell of a lot. There are many things that are not in your control,” says a senior executive of an overseas airline with considerable presence in India. “If the same incident had happened with a smaller airline, the outrage wouldn’t have been so bad,” he adds.
To be fair to Aditya, he has ably led IndiGo operations, which scaled to 1,000 flights a day - maximum for any Indian airline - in December 2017. The airline’s leadership is intact, with market share showing just a minor blip at 39.5 per cent in November 2017, from 39.7 per cent at the end March.
Financially too, IndiGo has out-performed its peers. While Jet Airways and SpiceJet struggled with net losses in 2015, IndiGo has kept its slate clean, having returned a profit every year since 2009, when it first broke-even. Since its listing in 2015, the company’s revenue has grown by a CAGR of 16 per cent, while SpiceJet grew by 8 per cent and Jet Airways was the slowest at 3 per cent.
And even as his peers in other airlines came and went, Aditya has held on firmly strapped in the cockpit. “Aditya knows when to back off from pushing his views, especially when it comes to his superiors. He is sharp and good in boss management,” says a former InterGlobe employee who didn’t want to be named.
Support from his bosses have been critical. “It will be unfair to credit IndiGo’s success to Aditya alone. While Bruce Ashby (the first President and CEO of IndiGo) was instrumental in setting strong processes and systems for the airline, Bhatia and Rakesh Gangwal – the industry veteran who co-founded the airline – have been instrumental in setting the vision and managing the environment for Aditya.“
It’s not that Aditya hasn’t given IndiGo a personal touch. A fitness enthusiast, the President and Whole-time Director has driven the airline’s initiative to set up gyms for police personnel in nearly 15 cities, as of June 2017. Aditya looked the happiest standing next to world renowned professional bodybuilder Kai Greene, during an event in Bengaluru last year.
Now as IndiGo looks to build more mass as it expands in the country and overseas, Aditya – who this year completes a decade as the airline’s President – will need to flex his muscles. The airline heads for a frenzied year of fleet expansion (including most of the 50 ATRs it had ordered), adding to its network (which grew to 50 destinations in December), and all the time keeping a watch on competitors. “How he manages this phase will be Aditya’s biggest challenge,” says the industry official quoted first in the story.(With inputs from Nitin Agarwal)