I remember working on an audio-visual (AV) during the launch of Tata Motors' first indigenously developed car brand, Tata Indica. In that AV, the copywriter had an interesting line: ‘A nation to be recognized as a respectable global power needs to have its own airline, and an automobile brand that it can call its own’.
India has had its own brand of airline for a long time and a car was hoping to fill the other gap. But the airline that put India on the global aviation map has suffered from many decades of neglect.
What will the addition of Air India do to the Tatas? And vice versa. This was a question that was debated at a recent panel discussion on Moneycontrol.
A brand new world
Tata Group under its new chairman, N. Chandrasekaran, has been making some bold moves. Major bets have been placed in the digital space. Bolstered by some bold acquisitions. The group is also busy building competencies in chip manufacturing and more. Interestingly, the group is going after a younger cohort. In line with this, the group is sponsoring marathons and has taken the title sponsorship of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Air India, though it cannot be seen as a youthful brand, is a service that can be of great relevance to the globe-trotting millennial Indians; and those who are travelling heavily within the country. There is however a need to refurbish the brand to make it more appealing to the young. (As a case in point, Royal Enfield managed to do this very well.)
The flip side of the coin is what can Tata Group do for Air India? For a start, the group will bring in strong bench strength in areas like financial management, human resources and technology. Already there are reports of senior managers of various Tata Group companies being earmarked for new expanded roles in Air India.
There is a dire need to bring about a culture change within Air India. As was seen when British Airways was turned around by Lord King in the early 1980s (remember the ‘World’s Favorite Airline’ ad campaign?), Air India will need an infusion of confidence and pride. And the Tatas have known competency in culture building. But that is not the only thing that Tatas can take to Air India.
Among all the big groups in India, Tata has the strongest presence in the hospitality sector with its Taj Hotel chain. The group also has a budget hotel chain in its ginger offering. Add to these the excellent air catering service offered by the Taj in collaboration with Singapore Airlines. Numerous airlines, domestic and international use their service. Air India makes a welcome fit to the string of hospitality offerings of the Tata Group.
Next comes technology. Any global airline needs a global technology partner. To run its systems and keep them up to date. In TCS, Air India has a brother or sister who can help them leapfrog to the top of the table. In addition, Tata Group is busy building its Super-App. It is likely this App could have a travel platform where Taj, Ginger and now Air India can get pride of place.
An airline needs a good ground transportation partner. Tata Motors and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) with its fleet of cars and world-class commercial vehicles will fill this gap very well.
Needless to mention, it is possible that Air India is already using several of Tata Group companies' services. Now that relationship can be taken to the next level.
The task is not easy and enough experts have opined on the challenges. Tata has two airline brands in its hangar. Air India is the third. So Tata will have to figure out how to manage all three. Then there are multiple labour, pilots, engineers unions to be handled. Vagaries of crude price movements. Need to invest in new aircraft and refurbishing old ones. And more.
Incredible Air India
But all said, Air India with Tatas flying it, has a better chance of success. And in a sense, as the world opens up post-pandemic, Air India will be well positioned to take Indians to multiple destinations and also bring business travellers and tourists to ‘Incredible India’. Hopefully in the coming years Indians flying to Europe and USA will not have to route their travel through Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Frankfurt or London.Air India will add wings to the Tata Group. But I believe the Tata will add a new sense of purpose to this company which brings with it a great brand story and heritage.