The much-discussed sale of Air India is gaining serious momentum with the emerging shortlist eliminating Indian suitors such as Jet and Indigo while welcoming British Airways and a few international airlines. A natural fallout is the stated agony that our beloved ‘flag carrier’ may soon be owned by some other sovereign entity, denting our national pride while rescuing the country’s coffers – which validly opens up a debate about the relevance of the national carrier in these competitive times and especially its ownership by a ‘local’ public or private entity.
The socio-emotional significance of an airline that bears the nation’s flag is driven by both business as well as political considerations, apart from plain old prestige. It matters so much more to developing countries as a viable representation of its competitiveness in the world stage, a point of parity with the First World. Planes have always been expensive and usually purchased through complicated loans and this industry thrives on bilateral routes that are diplomatic in origin, in addition to the infrastructure being of a highly sensitive nature demanding the highest security protocols. Thus, very tempting and even necessary for newly-forged nations to hold on to the airline as a state subject, India being an exception with the Tatas being a credible surrogate till the ill-advised nationalisation. Many who travel abroad for the first time, or even subsequently, value the hand-holding of a home-like experience in the skies, the aircraft a sensitive bridge to unfamiliar lands or a trailer of happiness for the returning diaspora.
What actually helps the airline become a willing candidate for national pride is the limited choice of available aircraft in the free world influenced largely by Boeing and Airbus with some regional worthies. So, unlike other technology products like cars or devices, the basic hardware is pretty much the same from nation to nation, a firm commitment to investments, service and operations being the experience differentiator. This also explains why the Gulf carriers (Qatar, Emirates and Etihad) launched in the 1980s and 90s managed to rapidly become industry leaders, easily overwhelming the Western legacy brands. Air New Zealand, Turkish and Garuda Indonesia turned around perceptions in less than a decade, assuming five-star stature and it is actually possible for any new airline, anywhere in the world, to earn a formidable reputation through productive management and a focused consumer experience. Thus, among all other visible, scalable and viable expressions of national pride overseas, the national carrier is pretty much the easiest to achieve and toughest to replace, especially for emerging nations.
The India of 2018, however, has evolved so successfully as a consumer economy that the connection between state or local ownership and proudly-ownable national stature is rapidly diminishing. It is an outcome chiefly of soft power, namely movies, sport, music, fashion and food; in every arena sustainable equilibrium between authenticity and globalisation happily achieved. When plainly overseas brands adapt to our tastes, such as Domino’s or M&S, or native popular culture embraces international influences, we are not just comfortable but in fact delighted. Ranveer and Anushka are symbols of national success whether they prance around in Lisbon or Lucknow, just as the courageous move by Lufthansa to embrace ethnicity in service and cuisine has been roaringly successful. As our successes and exposure increases, our symbols of pride become more dynamic (achievement, innovation and creativity) and no longer static like the national airline or past heroes, today’s youth inspired by visibly-accomplished peers and not textbook references.
Veering back to aviation, I do believe Jet Airways in its prime or Vistara, as it is emerging, are far more accomplished candidates for national carrier status, unless the newly-minted Air India surpasses them finally exploiting the repertoire of routes and equipment, way ahead of others. Even Indigo is well-equipped to become a global low-cost entity, perhaps pioneering a smart and inclusive way of travel that can be seen as distinctively Indian. So, it is critical that the sale of Air India be seen as a pure-business initiative, delinking obsolete associations with pride that are actually better served by the private players. We must look forward to the creation of an ambitious and quality-obsessed organisation elevating the brand to five-star stature through visionary management and inspirational service and operations.
When as a nation or as an individual, we are not proud of our own selves we actively seek out theoretical icons, quite like the pattern of worshipping dictators or Marxism in totalitarian nations. As we progress holistically, our symbols of pride become dynamic, rooted in meaningful demonstration and not static symbolism. May the best man and not necessarily the Indian man win the battle for Air India and make the experience a source of delight.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: email@example.com)
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