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How Air India under the Tatas soared to the top of the punctuality charts

Rejigging the schedule and getting off to on-time departures at the start of the day helped improve Air India’s on-time performance.

November 24, 2022 / 10:07 AM IST

The government released the Preliminary Information Memorandum for the sale of Air India in January 2020. As the month closed, the airline’s on-time performance at the country’s top four airports was 47.9 percent.

The very next month – the last full month of operations before the pandemic – Air India’s on-time performance was 51 percent, and it was at the bottom of the list, as was the case in the previous month.

The pandemic and the sale process ran in parallel and the airline was formally handed over to the Tata Group in January 2022. While the airline had an on-time performance of 92.9 percent in January, it still stood fifth among all carriers.

Even as the group looked for planes and a CEO before eventually finalising Campbell Wilson to take over, there was a clear mandate to improve Air India’s punctuality. After Campbell joined, he set up teams to ensure on-time departures.

When the Directorate General of Civil Aviation released the punctuality summary for October, the most eye-popping thing was Air India occupying the numero uno spot in on-time performance. At 90.8 percent, the airline managed to get to the top spot, having missed it by a whisker in September.

Wider network, more complexities

As an airline network grows, complexity increases. This is true for Air India and other carriers including IndiGo, which once championed the punctuality charts.

A delay in one flight puts the airline in a difficult situation: what to do about passengers with connecting flights? Hold the connecting flight, accommodate the passengers on another flight, or make arrangements for their stay and food and connect them the next day? The easiest option has always been to hold the connecting flight since accommodation is costly. There are also other issues like availability on the airline and other carriers the next day.

For Air India, the complexity is a tad higher due to its intercontinental network and subsequent connections – both international and domestic.

What did it do?

Climbing the punctuality charts is a difficult task, especially when the airline has aircraft grounded for repairs and maintenance.

While it may seem like madness from the outside, various online resources such as flight tracking site flightradar24 and websites of airport operators provide a good glimpse of what the airline has done to improve punctuality.

Schedule re-jig

The airline went in for its first schedule revamp in August. The summer schedule had already been planned when the Tatas took over. With new teams inducted, the first schedule rejig helped add frequencies, correct block times (the time taken from the pushback at the departure gate to arrival at the destination gate), and add ground times. This philosophy was carried over to the winter schedule.

First wave of departures

Over the past two months, the first set of flights – or the base flights as they are known – have been pushed back from the gates early. This meant that the team would have worked to ensure that the crew reports on time every time and that the engineering team signs off the aircraft on schedule.

At metro airports, schedules are largely banks of departures and arrivals, with base departures early in the morning followed by a spate of arrivals and another set of departures. This means that there could be a longer queue for take-off and an early pushback helps with buffers at both the departure and arrival airports.

An early arrival helps with a longer turnaround time and another before-time or on-time departure. Such plans help create an automatic buffer for any delays that may creep in later in the day.

Joint efforts and accountability

There is an old saying that when you have problems all around, you can start from any direction. In the case of Campbell Wilson, it seems that he started with all. Having set up a committee with members from multiple departments, it helped pinpoint the actual reasons for delays and take corrective action.

Easy to climb, difficult to sustain

At the heart of this entire exercise was the ability to charge more, eventually. When more passengers travel and do so on time, the airline will be in a position to have a standardised product and a punctuality rating that mirrors or exceeds that of its rivals, helping it to command a premium.

The efforts seem to have paid off, but it is always easier to climb than to stay on at the top. IndiGo changed its schedule to improve its punctuality considerably in November.

The challenge will be to occupy the No. 1 position and not just have a high punctuality rate. The airline had 92.9 percent this January, but was fourth, while it occupied the top spot in October with 90.8 percent.

Passengers remember the ranking, not the percentage.
Ameya Joshi runs the aviation analysis website Network Thoughts.