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Tata Sons picks new CEO to helm Air India after İlker Ayci setback

The experience Wilson brings to the table from the years he has spent at the Singapore Airlines Group looks to be more relevant than what Ayci could have brought and the added advantage of his coming from a Tata Sons partner airline would make things simpler.

May 12, 2022 / 06:28 PM IST
Campbell Wilson (Illustration - Suneesh Kalarickal)

Campbell Wilson (Illustration - Suneesh Kalarickal)

Tata Sons named Campbell WIlson as chief executive officer and managing director of Air India on May 12 – an appointment that had been eagerly anticipated since the previous designate for the top job stepped back before even taking the reins.

İlker Aycı had said he did not want the job, citing negative press coverage. Ayci had been in the dock for his association with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has taken a stand against India’s interests in the past few years.

Wilson will confront a host of challenges, but he brings along experience that is valuable and could help solve a complex puzzle the Tata group inherited -- the challenge of operating two airlines (Air India and Air India Express), looking at the merger of AirAsia India and integrating it with the group and fitting Vistara into the mix.

Working with Singapore Airlines (SIA) Group since 1996 with exposure to markets in New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Wilson has experience in sales, marketing, revenue and network planning. Rarely do airline groups groom and rotate people in such a manner that they get holistic exposure as the SIA Group does.

Experience in integration

Close

Wilson was the founder-CEO of Scoot - the low-cost arm of SIA group, which was formed in November 2011 and started operations in June 2012. The airline started collaborating with TigerAir -- another entity that received investment from SIA.

The last couple of years have seen the SIA Group evolve in multiple ways. This includes cross-selling inventory of its Low-Cost Carrier (LCC) and Full-Service Carrier (FSC) arms. This included earning miles, through check-in and everything needed for a single-priced ticket. While AirIndia Express has been in existence for 17 years, Air India has not been able to implement this - thus not being able to make the most of the vast and unique network.

Integration of manpower, systems and reporting structure are the major challenges -- which Wilson has seen and dealt with first hand in his various roles. He relinquished the position of CEO at Scoot Air in May 2016, only to return to the SIA Group as SVP for marketing and sales with Singapore Airlines – a post he held until March 2020.

As COVID-19 struck, he took over reins of Scoot for the second time and has been its CEO until his appointment with Air India.

Fleet

In its early days, Scoot operated a mix of B787s and B777-200. This was followed by some standardisation based on route and fleet evaluation. But as the merger with TigerAir went through, the airline again ended up with a mix of narrow-body and wide- body planes.

Wilson held senior positions in the SIA group when the group decided to move from four airlines to two, merging Silk Air with Singapore Airlines and TigerAir with Scoot, making for a low-cost arm and a full-service arm. Air India group is facing a similar problem with exactly the same number of airlines - four!

This experience will come in handy as Air India looks at fleet renewal - which will involve a decision on wide- body aircraft as well as renewal of fleet on the narrow-body side. Like SIA Group, Air India too comes with a medley of aircraft types including a mix of Airbus and Boeing planes.

The Vistara question

Vistara was the second airline which the Tata group started, in partnership with Singapore Airlines. The Tata group has a 51% share in the airline.

Every CEO since inception has been a former Singapore Airlines associate on deputation to the airline. Sooner or later, the question of two full-service carriers -- often eating into each other's market -- would start troubling the Tata group, if it already isn't. Wilson’s close association with SIA Group could help work towards an integration of the airline into the Air India fold or work at ways to operate separately without eating into each other’s market.

Tail Note

Did the top management at Tata Sons consult partners at Singapore Airlines on the CEO’s post? After the initial fiasco, this cannot be ruled out. The Tatas have time and again shown that they value partnerships, so much so that they continue to fund AirAsia India even when the foreign partner, AirAsia Bhd, couldn’t chip in. This was later converted to equity.

The experience which Wilson brings to Air India looks to be more relevant than what Ayci could have brought to the table and the added advantage of his coming from a partner airline would make things simpler.

The only challenge would be the brutal Indian market, where Wilson has not had a stint in the past!



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Ameya Joshi runs the aviation analysis website Network Thoughts.
first published: May 12, 2022 06:28 pm
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