DHAKA: India’s plans to be only the second country to roll out Boeing’s newest jet, the superefficient 787 Dreamliner, on its international routes.
Instead of being the guest of honour at a celebration at Indira Gandhi International Airport, however, India’s Dreamliner has been sitting on a tarmac in Everett, Wash., waiting for a formal invitation.
And even when the plane does arrive, which could be as early as next week, any celebration is likely to be muted because of a noisy dispute between pilots at the state-owned airline, Air India, which has led to a strike and a shutdown of some international flights according to Indian media reports.
Indians are deeply status conscious - the country`s ancient caste system includes thousands of categories - so the battle within the pilot ranks at Air India is no small matter to them.
But the failure to resolve these issues before the plane`s arrival reflects other vexing contradictions in India: a near-paralysis in government decision making, as well as a continued insistence that the government retain control over important national industries.
This unfortunate combination of control and indecision has crippled its coal mining, power generation, oil and agriculture sectors.
“There is more pretence than substance to our hankering for great power," said Bharat Karnad, a professor of national security studies at the Center for Policy Research here. "Most of our problems come from self-inflicted wounds, and there is no easy remedy.”
The last time India muffed a chance to star on the international stage in such a public way was in 2010, when its failure to provide adequate sporting and hospitality sites for the Commonwealth Games was deeply embarrassing, particularly because it came only two years after China had carried off its spectacular Olympic Games like clockwork.
As with everything about India, the reasons for the latest public debacle are complicated.
Manufacturing glitches led Boeing to put off the plane`s completion by three years, so most of the company`s customers cannot get the plane fast enough, but not India.
“India’s airplane is ready,” said Dinesh Keskar, a senior vice president for sales at Boeing. "We are waiting to give it to them.”
First, the country demanded that Boeing pay a $1 billion penalty for the manufacturing delays in India`s 27-plane order. Boeing offered a small fraction of that. The two sides have since come to an agreement but have not disclosed the amount. A government cabinet meeting is scheduled for the end of this week to approve the deal, but until then, no plane.
But even after that dispute is finally put to rest, Air India faces a fight with its pilots over who among them should be allowed to fly the 787.
Air India`s pilot problem has festered since a merger was announced in 2007 between the two state-owned airlines, Air India and Indian Airlines.
Pilots from the original Air India argued that since the Dreamliners were bought before the merger, only pilots working for the carrier at the time should be allowed to fly them.
But Air India, seeking a more flexible and efficient operation, sent 32 pilots from each of its predecessor companies to Singapore for training on the new plane. In response, hundreds of pilots have been calling in sick since May 7.
The merger of the two airlines was intended to create a carrier strong enough to compete globally and burnish India`s reputation.
Just the opposite has happened, as repeated strikes, poor service and safety fears have left Air India flailing even as the domestic and Asian air travel markets have grown rapidly.
On Sunday, a nose wheel on an Air India jet with 52 people aboard fell off during take-off from Silchar Airport, and the plane made an emergency landing in Guwahati, in north-eastern India, with no major damage or injuries.
"In hindsight, I can say that the merger didn`t work out," said Ajit Singh, India`s minister of civil aviation.
The government agreed this year to give the airline a $5.4 billion bailout as long as it met certain financial milestones.
"That`s why the strike came at such an inopportune time," Singh said. "This is the public`s money."
Singh announced last week that he had fired 101 of the 400 striking pilots and that the airline was in the midst of training new ones. Air India has had to cancel all its flights to Hong Kong, Osaka, Seoul and Toronto. Singh urged the pilots to return to work without preconditions.
K Swaminathan, an Air India spokesman, estimated that normal operations would resume within three or four months, and he said the airline had enough trained pilots to fly all three Dreamliners expected to be delivered this month. But the loss of highly profitable international routes will cost the airline dearly.
Air India`s turnaround plan depends heavily on the improved efficiency that the 787 will bring, so getting the airplane into the airline`s rotation is crucial.
The 787 is the first major commercial plane made almost exclusively from composite materials. Its wings flex like a glider`s when flying, and its reduced weight saves fuel.
“I`m very confident we will succeed,” Singh said.
Others are less sanguine. Air India is unlikely to turn itself around, said Saj Ahmad, chief analyst at StrategicAero Research in London, "until they sort out the strike and get pilots working again and streamline their top-heavy management team with one that knows how to run an airline."
BDST: 2121 HRS, JUN 13, 2012
Abul Kalam Azad, Newsroom Editor
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