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An Eliot fan in Air-India's cockpit

Rumi Dutta | December 29, 2003

V Thulasidas, Air-India CMDVasudevan Thulasidas took over as a full-time Chairman-cum-Managing Director of Air-India last week. He will have a tenure of three years.

There must be something special about the 55-year-old IAS officer of the Tripura cadre because he is the first full-time CMD to be appointed for A-I after a gap of nine years, a period that coincided with serious attempts by the government to privatise the airline.

Thulasidas has been pitchforked into the A-I cockpit at a critical time. Despite posting a net profit of Rs 134 crore (Rs 1.34 billion) in 2002-03, the airline is reeling under cumulative operating losses of Rs 303.12 crore (Rs 3.031 billion) on nine out of its 10 routes.

A few years ago, the government called off its privatisation plans because the airline did not fetch a 'fair value.'

Son of a school-teacher, the soft-spoken Keralite remains unfazed by the carrier's operating losses. He has a clear idea of what he wants to do.

"Air-India should be the best airline in the world. To attain those heights will require team effort. So I will focus on building the team first. Quality, profits and employee satisfaction will be my focus areas," he says.

Within 48 hours of his appointment, Thulasidas held a series of meetings with A-I top brass to understand the business.

Sources in the aviation ministry say his appointment is strategic in nature. "It reflects the Centre's clear plan to decide on the fate of A-I within a time-frame of three years," says a senior bureaucrat.

Thulasidas takes over at a time when the operational integration of the two national carriers -- A-I and Indian Airlines -- is gaining momentum.

It also comes close on the heels of the A-I board approving its fleet acquisition plan which entails buying 10 long-range and 18 short-range aircraft for roughly Rs 10,000 crore (Rs 100 billion).

Add to this the fact that the government is talking about an open sky policy, and the challenge before A-I is truly formidable.

There are 37 international airlines operating at Mumbai airport and Indian carriers account for a mere 24 per cent of the international flights.

Further, while the foreign carriers utilise 44 of the 46 active air service agreements, the Indian carriers operate only 20.

"If this continues, the national carriers run the risk of becoming fringe players," says an aviation industry source. It's certainly not going to be a joy-ride for Thulasidas.

For one, the airline's pilots may have been tamed for the time being but given an opportunity they are capable of striking back.

By its very nature A-I arouses strong passions and Thulasidas could find himself running into turbulent weather for taking any unpleasant decisions like privatisation.

For the time being, he appears to have got off to a good start by striking the right chord with A-I employees.

"Our new CMD is a very good listener. He is not overpowering by nature and does not project a high profile," says an A-I employee closely associated with the CMD's office.

He also seems to be enjoying the backing of the powers-that-be. Ashok Saikia, the joint secretary in the PMO, is said to have thrown his weight behind his appointment.

An IAS officer of 1972 batch, Thulasidas was chief secretary to Tripura before his new job. An ardent admirer of T S Eliot, Thulasidas's passion was English literature, in which he acquired a post-graduate degree.

After that, he taught briefly in a college in Kerala and even enrolled himself for PhD in the University of Kerala.

But he was selected for the IAS before he completed his doctoral thesis and was allotted to the Manipur-Tripura cadre.

Given a choice, Thulasidas would have preferred journalism but he took the plunge in the civil services because he had just a year left to cross the upper age limit for the exam.

What he regrets even today is that he had to quit American theatre school after he joined the Indian Administrative Services.

He is not, however, a fledgling to aviation. He has been under secretary, ministry of civil aviation; director (Air), ministry of defence; and joint secretary (Air), ministry of defence.

In his new assignment -- the toughest one in his career -- he can draw comfort from the example of M Damodaran, the man who took over the Unit Trust of India after its worst crisis. Like Thulasidas, Damodaran is also a former chief secretary of Tripura.

"There is something about Tripura that prepares one to take on heavier responsibilities," says the new CMD of A-I.

Nothing can be heavier than keeping A-I flying in the present competitive environment.

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