‘CHEAP AVIATION’ IS DANGEROUS…

As a consumer and a citizen of India, one cannot but be completely stupefied by the state of the civil aviation in the country. The ‘open skies’ policy that envisaged a vibrant growth of the industry while at the same time promising air travel to the common man has been an unqualified failure, as is clearly apparent from the sorry state of once high-flying operators. The owner of Kingfisher Airlines is a fugitive economic offender and now, Jet Airways is flying on a similar trajectory of fold-up – the reasons may well be different. Less said about the national carrier, the better – it would have been long dead and buried without the periodic CPR and oxygen administered by the Union Government.

Affordable flying is a noble intent but apparently, the business models adopted by our carriers do not seem to render operations profitable – quite the opposite. The airlines are not generating revenue to even pay the crew for months together. Trying to sustain such models will obviously push all the remaining carriers to bankruptcy, sooner than later. India is a country where the GDP per capita is in the region of $ 2000 in comparison to the richest nation in the world where it stands at $ 175000. Therefore, all these ‘Udaan’ kind of initiatives are obviously detrimental to the health of the aviation industry. Aviation is a ‘high fixed-cost’ industry and costs of aviation fuel, maintenance, lease payments, parking costs and crew remunerations are going North while at the same time, cut-throat competition is not allowing a commensurate increase in fares, resulting in a clearly unsustainable situation where air fares are often lower than premium train AC fares. Alas, realism has fallen victim to populist measures. It is well past the time when we should have increased air fares, lowered the astronomical crew salaries, curtailed overheads and strengthened other forms of transportation. Better late than never – but let us start for heaven’s sake.

Safety is intrinsic to flying and all carriers must ensure adequate assurance on this critical aspect. Though there are basic minimum standards ensured by the regulator, operators rarely if at all, invest in advanced concepts and tools that accrue cost savings in the long term. The biggest losses in any organisation do not happen due to major accidents as these are rare. Substantial losses occur due to the cumulative impact of minor incidents and ignored risks. Operational risk management may help in averting major disasters or aid in speedy recovery with minimal impact, in addition to saving costs on repairs, maintenance and compensation. Having such robustness needs concerted effort and additional funding; and aviation industry business models must factor this as an essential feature of their operational strategy. Our national regulator, DGCA, also needs to rethink its own functioning and get contemporary with a larger infusion of domain experts who can deliver on stringent aviation safety commitments.

Funding and corporate governance also seem to have their own dynamics. The Kingfisher and Jet stories appear to suggest that stakes of the promoter at the time of borrowing investment capital may be insufficient to ensure efficient operations in the long term and fails to generate profits essential for repayment of debt. With just 10% stake, it is possible to obtain 90% funding from banks. Banks lend money on projections. Who makes these projections? And what happens when such projections fail? Anyway, once the money is released, it seems like a good strategy to park this borrowed money from Indian banks abroad and buy asylum in advance as the promoter knows beforehand that default is either deliberate or inevitable. Otherwise, is it so easy to seek shelter in a foreign country? Perhaps, it is a strategy that the rich, famous and connected can pull off with ease. Further, financial matters of such proportions are rarely decided by one individual. Surely, there are Boards of Directors and Auditors without whose approval or knowledge, no major financial decisions are normally taken – and this points to their total complicity in crime. Very few business houses of stature with the capability and financial muscle to steer the growth trajectory of our country can boast of a corporate culture that is clean and transparent. Sad but true!

Coming back to the humble flyer – please do not be enamoured with cheap fares. An air ticket that costs Rs 20000 cannot be sold for Rs 2000 without compromises being made or shortcuts being taken. And evidently, that cannot be offset by selling a sandwich costing Rs 20 for Rs 200. As a general principle, if anything is too good to be true, it is either short-lived or designed for short-term gains of a handful of unscrupulous individuals. Quality and safety come at a price which airline operators and consumers ought to pay. ‘Cheap Aviation’ is dangerous – we will never know when or where the next corner will be cut. The results could be catastrophic.

THE POST – PULWAMA CIRCUS

A ‘bad circus’ is what best describes post-Pulwama developments in India – or more specifically, developments over Indian television channels. A circus provides entertainment to its viewer – so did post-Pulwama Indian visual media – with one essential difference. Circus performers are skilled professionals. Indian television channels and their anchors, if anything, were the stark opposite in the post-Pulwama circus. The hysteria in their voices, the absolutely uninformed questions, their compulsive need to keep talking just because competing channels were doing so and their complete ignorance of concepts relating to security were intolerably apparent.

          Now let us come to the ‘experts’. A typical characteristic of the Indian television world is its likeness to a popcorn machine. Minutes after any news-worthy event, ‘experts’ pop up like popcorns. Now who are these experts? They are mostly retired bureaucrats and senior military officers, well past their time and therefore ‘date expired’, not necessarily well-read or articulate and most of them with awful media presence. There are even some who go frothing in the mouth and seem to be on the verge of a collapse or seizure after a particularly vicious rant. Except a very few informed and balanced individuals, such ‘experts’ do not contribute in any way to the understanding of the event, its repercussions or any valuable analysis. More importantly, in their eagerness to display ‘knowledge’, they could divulge snippets of information from their ‘uniformed’ memory which is clearly avoidable. They perhaps need to exercise greater discretion – and believe me, they don’t need the pocket money that television channels offer.

          Then there are our armchair tacticians – people who develop colourful graphics on how they think the secret operation was carried out. While much of that makes fictional and humorous reading, completely devoid of any sense, such people would be well-advised to learn that tactical plans are never discussed and should never be discussed beyond the boundaries of operations rooms. More than others, our veteran defence ‘experts’ would do well to remind themselves that they must never be a party to fictional reconstructions of tactical plans as this may inadvertently divulge snippets of classified information into the public domain. And for those armchair tacticians – please join the armed forces if you wish to fulfill your passion for tactics. At least you will learn when to shut up!! 

          Finally, a word about information-handling. Information superiority, in very simple terms, is staying ahead of your opponent in the information game. It is a matter of withholding information, its dissemination or denial, selecting the audience and method; and most importantly, one of timing. Information management in a conflict situation cannot be undertaken by generalists. It requires a deep understanding of all issues that constitute national security and a detailed understanding of events on the ground, at sea or in the air. It is a round-the-clock function requiring speed, discretion, astute filtering skills, empowerment and top-level political direction. In today’s world of instant expectations, another trick is not to fall victim to media pressure and play the information game as a grandmaster would play chess. We therefore need to select our grandmasters carefully and allow them the discretion to either play lightning chess or wear the opponent out with well-strategised information gambits.

Knowledge, discretion and timing are everything in the information game. A complete rethink of our overall ‘Information Strategy’ and deep introspection about the post-Pulwama ‘circus’ would do the country a lot of good. It may be time to make the opening gambit…