A look at how the four airlines under the Indian conglomerate have benefited from each other this year.
With four Indian airlines under its belt, the Tata Group's situation could be viewed through different lenses. Many believe the conglomerate has an uphill task of steering the mostly unprofitable carriers to good health in an increasingly competitive Indian aviation market. However, in the last few months, we have also witnessed how operating multiple airlines could also be an advantage when it comes to fleet and resource management.
Recently, Vistara's CEO Vinod Kannan mentioned that the airline continues to view other carriers under the Tata umbrella as competition, and that may indeed be true. But that hasn't stopped the Tatas from looking within its vast pool of pilots, cabin crew, executives, and fleet to fill the gaps within its airlines' operations whenever the need arises.
Indeed, all four airlines under the Tata brand – Air India, Vistara, AirAsia India, and Air India Express – have either benefited or helped the other for various reasons. Here's a look at some examples in the last few months.
In February, the two carriers signed an agreement to accommodate each other's passengers during irregular operations. Signed for two years, the deal will be applicable for both domestic and international flights, and the final decision has been given to airport managers regarding the acceptance of the other airline's passengers.
An official statement regarding the agreement was shared by the group, which said,
“This arrangement will enable airport teams of both Al and Vistara to offer alternative first available flights so that inconvenience to passengers is minimised. Carriage of passengers shall be on an 'as available' basis as determined by the airport manager of accepting airline.”
With this move, the Tatas also wanted to increase the confidence among Indian passengers to travel on airlines under its brand and almost be assured of a backup option in case of unseen flight disruptions.
While a decision to merge Vistara with Air India is still in the works, several developments have been taking place behind the scenes. In another sign of growing synergies between the two carriers, several high-ranking Vistara employees were onboarded by Air India in May.
The LinkedIn profiles of people in several key departments at Vistara, including IT and network planning, revealed that they had switched workplaces and moved to Air India.
The Tatas, however, referred to this as an established policy within the group because talent is considered a group resource, adding that "group transfers take care of talent as well as company's interest."
Several key Vistara employees, including Kartikey Bhatt, Vistara's deputy general manager-network, Prasan Verma, who had been with Vistara since 2016 and was given the role of head of commercial and operations IT at Air India, and Sandeep Verma, Vistara's head of cabin crew, went to Air India.
A person familiar with the developments had said there were "more such parallel appointments happening from Vistara to Air India across other specialized departments such as commercial, revenue management, partnerships, etc."
It was simply too generous of Vistara to offer seniors from crucial departments to AI, but many saw this as an affirmation of a merger in the coming months.
Earlier this month, Vistara looked towards AirAsia India for its crew needs amid plans for a growing fleet. Vistara is facing a shortage of pilots as it looks to expand its fleet in the coming months. The airline was hopeful that there would be a surplus of pilots in the market after the pandemic, but many have been absorbed by airlines, particularly in the Middle East.
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On the other hand, AirAsia India currently has more pilots than required for the next few months, having scaled down operations. In an arrangement that works for both airlines, it emerged that Vistara would rope in captains and first officers on deputation from AirAsia India to meet the needs of its expanding fleet.
It is viewed as a convenient arrangement, as a bulk of Vistara's operations are carried out by the A320 family of planes, the type that AirAsia India also uses.
But both airlines have their own operating procedures, and the AirAsia India crew moving over to Vistara will have to undergo training to familiarize themselves with the new operating environment. A senior commander told The Times of India,
“AirAsia India pilots will have to undergo an Operator Conversion Course involving ground school, safety emergency procedures, etc. They will need to undergo a similar training program when they return to AirAsia India.”
And finally, the most recent development was of Air India Express looking to dry lease two Boeing 737 airplanes from Vistara in order to meet its immediate demand. At a time when carriers like IndiGo and SpiceJet have to look externally to wet lease airplanes, Air India Express decided to look at a sister airline for help.
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The carrier has plans for an eventual long-term fleet development and network expansion. But until that happens, it wants to benefit from a short term-arrangement by taking two of Vistara's 737s, which the airline itself took a few years ago after Jet Airways went down.
AI Express will use these planes to increase capacity on existing routes and not open any new ones.
Indeed, the Tata Group has a mammoth task ahead to turn around the fortunes of Air India and the proposed mergers, which will be carefully crafted keeping in mind the future profits.
The challenges posed by the seemingly unassailable dominance of IndiGo in the domestic market and the superior services of many foreign carriers mean that the conglomerate has its task cut out for it. But the Tatas perhaps feel that consolidating its airline business to create a meaningful impact in the coming years is the best way forward.
What do you feel about the Tata Group's strategy for its airlines? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Journalist – With a background in publishing and digital media, I like to combine my love for aviation with my passion for storytelling and reporting. I’m a keen observer of ever-changing aviation trends around the world and particularly in India. I also keep a close eye on fleet development of all major carriers and their subsequent impact on regional and international routes. Based in New Delhi, India.
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