Death of An Airline

“Good Friday? There’s nothing good about this Friday!” Perhaps that’s what you would hear from any one of the 22,000 employees of the airline that officially died a day earlier (18th April 2019) leaving them jobless.

My first meeting with Mr. Naresh Goyal was way back in 1987. He was visiting his travel agency’s Mangalore branch. JetAir, the General Sales Agent (GSA) of several leading international carriers had several branches all over the country. The Mangalore branch could have been mistaken for Gulf Air’s own office going by the thousands of tickets sold to those frequenting the oil and work rich Middle East. It was one of his best performing offices. I knew it because irrespective of the usually thin number people checking into the hotel where I worked, there was always a long queue of bodies outside the travel agency waiting for their turn to be serviced. He was quite taken by my knowledge of airlines and aircrafts; enough to tell me that someday soon, there would be more than just Air India and Indian Airlines flying the Indian skies, and his airline would be one of them. Impressed as I was with the person I was sharing breakfast with, I found it hard to believe him, knowing well the turbulence the pilot flying India as its Prime Minister was being subjected to.

Ten years later, I met with the gentleman once again. I had switched hats from running hotels to journalism, and he from selling airline tickets to owning his own airline — Jet Airways. It was certainly not the first private airline in India to take flight, but it had survived the initial struggle that had killed some of the early starters. By 1997, Jet had established itself as a quality, customer focused, service oriented, reliable airline. It reminded Indian fliers of the days when the national carrier Air India was considered as one of the best in the world. As a journalist, it was a matter of pride to interview a man who had worked his way achieving his goal and more so, not forgotten a person he had met so long ago.

The airline won my loyalty and I kept notching up miles flying with it. Fast forward ten years. Last day of 2007 brought me in touch with the man again. This time, at a private New Year’s party at the AER at Four Seasons. He looked in high spirits literally and figuratively. He asked me if I was still with the press. I told him I was working with a real-estate fund now, to which he said - let’s connect soon — he had some big plans. I did not meet him for I could sense a change in the person. He was on an ambition overdrive and that’s a dangerous phase for any person. In 2007, Jet Airways had taken over Air Sahara. Something told me right then that this ambition to become India’s largest carrier would be the cause of its end. I am not a soothsayer but the airline having bought a death wish on itself was evident to many in the aviation circles. The ten years that followed could be best described as one of “falling from grace”. It began to operate more and more as a low cost airline pretending to be full service — at least on the domestic legs. Cutting down on ground and in flight services, reduction of legroom and baggage allowance in economy, customer indifferent attitude, heavy penalties for changes and cancellations made a passenger wonder why he or she would want to use this airline in the first place. The saving grace, its loyalty program too took a deep dive post a quasi merger with Etihad Airlines.

Some 26 years of flying high, Jet was forced to shut operations, soon after Mr. Goyal was forced to vacate the No 1 chair.

In a way, I am happy and sad to see this airline shut down. Happy because it deserved an end like this thanks to its arrogance. Sad because I have several good memories flying with it, and of course, a lot of good people are out of a job now. But, most of them are responsible for the airline’s fate as much as its management or circumstances are, maybe more. Do I feel the lenders should have kept it on a ventilator until a savior was found? Of course not. Mr. Goyal is reputed to be the 16th richest Indian with a personal fortune of some US$ 2 billion, if he couldn’t reach into his deep pocket to save his airline — no one should. With the customer too having lost all faith in the airline, there was hardly a point of sinking good money after bad. Do I think it will fly again? Given a choice it shouldn’t, not in the way it was in the last ten years. Who do I think should rescue it? Strategically, Qatar Airways. It has all the right reasons to take it over — including aircrafts that could be reflagged as well as world class service standards. Given that it would own a maximum of 49%, Jet would still fly with an Indian flag. With a hub in Doha, it could bypass all the overflying restrictions imposed on the Qatari carrier by its neighbours. Of course, it would piss off India’s new friends. But then, are they financially in good shape to call the shots?

Until then, RIP Jet Airways,



Author. Consultant. Entrepreneur.

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