Being a PSU, Air India faces a unique set of constraints. In order to maximize its performance, the airline should take the most optimal decisions that satisfy these constraints.
On Monday I had to go to Mumbai on some work and I flew Air India. Normally I prefer to fly either Jet or Indigo, but given the short notice at which I had to plan my trip, and the fare difference between Air India and the other two (leaving aside some airline I don’t trust), I decided to go for the national carrier. Overall it wasn’t an unpleasant experience – my onward flight was late by ten minutes or so, while my return flight was on time. There was plenty of leg space, the food was good and online check in was hassle free. Yet, it looked like there was plenty of scope for improvement.
Now for a digression. The difference between club football and international football is that in the latter you cannot buy players (not strictly true – Spain got Brazilian born Diego Costa to play for them on account of 1. his Spanish passport, 2. that he had never played for his native Brazil, but this is an extreme assumption). To use a cliched term, in international football you need to play the hand that you’re dealt. Thus, the job of a manager of an international football team is to organize his team’s strategy and tactics according to the personnel available to him, rather than the other way round. For example, Dutch manager Louis van Gaal is known to favour a possession based passing game. However, given the set of Dutch players available to him, he has set them out as a counterattacking side.
Given the lack of degrees of freedom in running PSUs, it can be argued that running a PSU is closer to managing a national football team than it is to managing a club team. Government ownership and consequent pay structures, combined with the lack of a good lateral entry system to the Indian public sector, mean that it is hard for a PSU to “buy” personnel like private companies can. On the other hand, sacking PSU employees is a politically charged activity, and not easy to administer, so it is hard to get rid of deadwood also.
The traditional argument is that given these restrictions that PSUs face, it is impossible for them to perform at the same level as comparable private sector units. While this argument is well taken, what we need to be careful is to not let this mask any degree of poor performance by a PSU. The question, instead, that we need to ask is if the PSU is actually making best use of the “hand it has been dealt”. What we need to check is if the PSU is optimizing correct given the resources and constraints at hand.
Coming back to Air India, one of the stated causes of its poor performance is that it is overstaffed – it far exceeds its global peers in terms of the number of employees per aircraft (normally assumed to be a good metric of staff size). This was fully visible at the boarding gate on Monday, for there were four personnel with the task of barcode scanning the boarding passes. Most other airlines have two staff doing this. A clear case of overstaffing. While it may not be under the management’s control to downsize (see constraints listed above), what irked me was that they were not being put to best use.
Just to take a simple example, if you have twice the number of required staff at the boarding counter, all you need to do is to put in an additional barcode scanner and run two boarding lines instead of one – which results in doubling the pace at which the plane is boarded. This doubling of boarding pace means planes can have a much faster turnaround time at each airport – which means the number of flights that Air India can run given its stock of aircraft can increase significantly!
To take another example, Air India probably has the best leg space in the economy class among all Indian carriers – this is probably driven by the fact that a large number of government officers and ministers travel mostly by Air India, and holy cows mean that they are forced to travel “cattle class”, the airline offers some comfort. Now, while this means each plane has one or two rows of seats less than that of other carriers, it constitutes a massive marketing opportunity for the airline! Given the leg space and comfort and meals (!!), Air India can very well position itself as a premium carrier and try to charge a premium on tickets!
On an absolute basis, the recommendations above may not be optimal – it might be well possible to make more money by sacking boarding gate employees than by cutting boarding time, or it may make more business sense to add an extra row of seats than try to enhance legspace. However, given the constraints the carrier faces, these are possibly the “second best decisions” that the carrier can take. And by not taking these decisions, the carrier is not making as much money as it can make!