Opinion

Indian government has good reason to try and sell off Air India. The question is: Will it succeed?

There would be a significant improvement in government finances if the stress of running the loss-making airline is removed.

The great investor Warren Buffett once joked that if a far-sighted investor had been present at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, that person could have done the world a major favour by shooting Orville and Wilbur Wright before the Flyer got off the ground. The Wright brothers were the pioneers of powered flight. According to Buffett, the airline industry, which their invention brought into existence, has caused more massive wealth destruction than any other industry.

As always, there is a kernel of truth in Buffett’s statements. Commercial flights have great benefits for those who use them, and they enable multiple other industries too. But airlines rarely make serious profits. In fact, the industry seems to run on losses more often than not. This has been the case globally and is the case in India now.

Many factors are responsible for this.

First, commercial airliners are monstrously expensive gadgets. Airlines take on large debts to buy them. The usual process is for airlines to buy a plane, sell it to a lender and lease it back. This eases their debt burden somewhat because the airline repays the lender via periodic instalments rather than a one-time huge sum. In addition, maintenance and repair is expensive. Second, aviation turbine fuel (also known as kerosene) constitutes a large proportion of operating costs (often between 40%-45% of all operating costs) and is completely outside the control of the airline. Third, trained pilots and crew and engineers are expensive. Four, parking slots are expensive.

All these are costs that have to be paid, regardless of occupancy or load factor, a term used to describe how efficiently a transporter fills available capacity in order to generate revenue. At the same time, competition in the industry and the existence of alternative modes of transport ensures that fares cannot be pitched too high. So most airlines lose money because they cannot squeeze their costs enough or get a decent fare-occupancy that covers all costs, including debt-servicing. Airlines that do make money usually have to rely on several things working well at the same time. It helps if crude prices are down because Aviation Turbine Fuel costs will be low. It helps if costs can be squeezed by running operations efficiently. It helps if the load factor is high enough.

(Photo credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP).
(Photo credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP).

Profit and loss

In India, complex regulations and poor infrastructure add to the problems. Among other things, airlines have to fly non-remunerative routes, there are restrictions that reduce the pool of potential investors, and poor airport facilities and capacities lead to higher fuel consumption.

Only one Indian commercial airline makes money consistently. That is Interglobe Aviation or Indigo. Jet Airways has made money intermittently, usually when Aviation Turbine Fuel costs are down. Several others – Kingfisher, Sahara, Air Deccan, have gone out of business. (Air Deccan, however, restarted operations last month after a decade out of business). Spice Jet has required infusions of capital to pull it around.

One Indian airline has lost money consistently. That is Air India. It has all the problems referred to above. Massive debt – about $8 billion worth, much of it forex-denominated – has been taken on to order new planes. It has poor load factors due to perceptions of poor quality of service. With 27,000-plus employees, it also has a bloated workforce that creates an immense wage-bill and an aggressive union that fights attempts to downsize. Its massive losses have required the government to pump in new capital ever so often.

In the last 20 years, every Indian government has flirted with the possibility of selling off Air India, and every government has baulked at the last mile. This one appears to have gotten a little closer to finalising details. The government has eased investment norms, allowing overseas partners, including airlines, to own up to 49% stake in the national carrier. It is prepared to sell upto 51% stake, which will hand over control to a strategic buyer. It is prepared to split the airline up into multiple different entities that will be separated and sold as different companies. It is prepared to forgive some of the debt (by pulling it out into a special purpose vehicle, where it might be sold at a large discount) so a buyer will face less of a debt-service burden. It says it will take care of Air India’s workforce, though it is unclear how it would do this. It has announced that it hopes to sell the core airline business, including what is now Air India and Air India Express, by the “end of 2018”.

Aviation market outlook

India’s aviation market has some things going for it. Passenger growth is the quickest in the world and this is now the third-largest market. Passenger growth is expected to stay in double-digits even if it moderates. Plus, there are ambitious plans to turn India into a maintenance, repair and overhaul hub to service not only Indian fleets but also fleets from overseas, which would otherwise have to fly to Europe, America or Brazil for these facilities. That could reduce costs. There is also room for faster cargo growth. The government says it is committed to increasing airport capacities, which could reduce fuel consumption and parking fees. However crude prices are in an upcycle, which means that Aviation Turbine Fuel costs could go up for the next year or longer.

There would be a significant improvement in government finances if the stress of running the loss-making airline is removed. At the same time, anybody who buys into an airline is probably going to lose a lot of money over the long-term.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.