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V Thulasidas: Air India's saviour

October 20, 2006 14:33 IST
When Vasudevan Thulasidas, a 1972 IAS Tripura cadre officer, took over as the chairman and managing director of Air India in December, 2003, many eyebrows were raised. He was the first full-time CMD of Air India after a gap of nine years.

But this 58-year-old soft-spoken Keralite has now become a prominent face of the Indian aviation sector - a person even the babus of Rajiv Gandhi Bhawan call up. As a negotiator between the airlines and the government, Thulasidas has gained many admirers.

"He is a key figure today and has no biases," says Siddhanth Sharma of SpiceJet, "The airline industry, which otherwise is filled with big business houses and industrialists, is willing to listen to him and accept his suggestions."

Take the October 16 meeting of airline chiefs called to form an aviation association. Airlines were divided over fuel surcharges. Some airlines wanted low-cost airlines to raise ticket prices for the "financial health" of the industry, words of which resulted in some speculation about imminent cartelisation.

According to an airline chief present, it was Thulasidas, who chaired the meeting, who reminded everyone that such divisions would not only doom the association, it could result in government regulation of fares. "The association would not have become a reality otherwise," says G R Gopinath of Air Deccan.

Thulasidas, who took the cockpit of Air India at a critical juncture, has also been trying to get Air India into shape. 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 303.1 crore (Rs 3.03 billion), with nine-tenths of the routes bleeding.

Now, with a fleet expansion plan underway, Thulasidas is sure that the Maharaja will become a force to reckon with in the global skies. This was one reason why the prospect of Air India's merger with Indian (the domestic airline) attracts him.

It is he who has managed to veer a sceptical government - especially the Prime Minister - round to the idea that a merger can fly nicely on both wings. As a shareholder, the government could gain as much as Rs 300 crore (Rs 3 billion) on cost savings alone, before the rather more complex benefits begin to visibly gain altitude.

Thulasidas was chief secretary to Tripura before his new job. An ardent admirer of T S Eliot, his passion has always been English literature, in which he acquired a post-graduate degree.

After that, he taught briefly at a college in Kerala and even enrolled himself for a PhD at 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. Thulasidas would have preferred journalism, but the age limit for the IAS was nearing.

What he regrets even today is that he had to quit theatre for it too. But then, he has been under secretary, ministry of civil aviation; director (air), ministry of defence; and joint secretary (air), ministry of defence - jobs not without their own share of drama.

His career now would be judged on how fairly he runs the airline association (and every market has unvoiced interests too), and how well Air India does in the aviation sector, the destiny of which has had airplane makers in a grip of 20-year enthusiasm, lately.

Bipin Chandran in New Delhi