Indigo President Aditya Ghoshs final hours played out in a room in Gurgaon, a city of seven golf courses surrounded by apartment towers sprouting like concrete weeds.
In aviation circles, many likened the move to the tagline of India’s most successful airline: Before Time Departure.
The plan to replace him was unanimous and followed a tumultuous year of crises that Ghosh masked behind a thick smokescreen, with reasons ranging from his presiding over a decision to buy cheaper aircraft, inability to handle crisis emerging out of Pratt and Whitney engines that promised 16 per cent fuel savings but eventually led to the grounding of a large number of aircraft, to the loss in a courtroom battle over moving its operations to another terminal, and customer dissatisfaction over the airline’s operations.
At the end, Ghosh, a fitness freak and marathon runner who once told a corporate gathering in Delhi that he needs no marketing help because “my product is the best”, had to walk out of the company he nurtured for almost a decade.
Ghosh basked in the glory of success, one in every two passengers in India flies on Indigo.
He did not tell his colleagues whether he erred being stubborn and whether he should have taken some instant, bold decisions to hype the image of his company. A friend — explaining the myriad ways of marketing economics — told Ghosh why image-building was important for Indigo and how a top Indian conglomerate is contemplating hiring a former cricket captain for its campaign in a faraway nation to counter negative publicity from rivals who had hired a family of international cricketers to bolster their cause.
But it was clear to many that Ghosh did not care much about the image of the airline, as long as profits soared. This January, India’s biggest budget airline said its profits rose by 56 percent at Rs 762 crore. What was surprising was that a significant portion of the margin was boosted by foreign exchange gains and credits from Pratt & Whitney to compensate for engine glitches that grounded Indigo’s Airbus planes.
Senior officials of Pratt and Whitney — in their representations to Directorate General of Civil Aviation — explained to the regulator the difference between air worthiness and air safety and why new aircraft engines would have “teething” problems for at least one million hours. They also cited examples where pilots of Indigo and Go Air explained why troubles in engines are a routine occurrence in the aviation business.
But it did not cut much ice for a large chunk of India’s estimated 49 million passengers, many taking to social media to vent their ire over such engine failures. Some cases of Indigo aircrafts being forced to do emergency landings on single engines went viral on social media.
In India, where governments have fallen due to high prices of lowly onions, perception is important, Ghosh was told by his colleagues. And Indigo was not even explaining to its passengers the crisis of engine failures. Indigo did not care.
If this was one of the biggest problems for Indigo, the other was the airline’s defiant attitude to the orders of the Ministry of Civil Aviation to shift its operations to another terminal. Indigo protested and the matter went to court. Company insiders said Ghosh impressed upon the board not to shift because of high aerobridge costs in the T2 terminal. Eventually, the airline lost its cases in the Delhi High Court and subsequently in the Supreme Court.
There were other issues that bothered Indigo, especially the case in which the airline suo-moto announced a bid for Air India and then deciding to pull out once the terms and conditions and the bidding criterion for the Maharaja were made public. IndiGo’s announcement to bid for Air India saw the airline’s stocks take a tumble.
But the biggest blow to Indigo’s image took place last November when security staff manhandled a passenger at New Delhi airport, the incident prompting the government to launch an investigation into the ground operations of the airline. In a video, widely shared on social media and televised on local news channels, two IndiGo staff members were seen pinning a passenger down on the ground after an argument on the tarmac. The incident sparked a public outcry across India and even triggered jokes taunting Indigo ground staff for their misbehaviour.
Indigo initially ignored the incident but following the probe by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Ghosh sent a seven-page report to the minister and explained through multiple screenshots from the video to explain the reasons behind the incident. Eventually, Ghosh had to apologise. “We find this incident extremely regrettable and wish that we would have handled this differently. Whatever may have been the provocation, whether verbal or physical abuse, we could have tried to display more restraint,” Ghosh said.
But what irked the government was his continued defence of some of the actions of his employees which he said were taken to ensure the passenger’s safety.
Now that Ghosh is out of Indigo, efforts are being made to bring about wholesale change of the airline’s corporate culture. His exit as the airline’s president raises some important questions about Indigo’s future, including who will help the airline retain its lead over the rest in the Indian skies. The IndiGo Board is to meet on May 2 to announce its results for the quarter ending March 31, 2018. Besides growing in size, the airline is also looking at an overhaul of strategy, shifting gears from having a single aircraft variety to wide-body aircraft for long-haul operations.
It will all happen without Ghosh.
For the record, the airline’s promoter Rahul Bhatia appointed himself as the interim Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and circulated a letter that said the post will eventually go to Gregory Taylor, who had a previous stint at IndiGo and helped shape the fortunes of United Airlines and US Airways. Taylor was inducted as a Senior Advisor in the company, reporting directly to Bhatia.
(Shantanu Guha Ray is with Business Television India. He can be contacted at [email protected])