Thursday, January 11, 2018

Aditya Ghosh: The seasoned pilot runs into turbulent weather

Those who know him say Aditya Ghosh has an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.
While in college, his friend’s father – who turned out to be Jyoti Sagar, founder of legal firm J Sagar Associates – was so impressed with Aditya’s curiosity that he offered the youngster a job as his Executive Assistant. Aditya rose swiftly at J Sagar and was soon handling important clients, Rahul Bhatia’s InterGlobe Enterprises, being one of them.
In 2004, as Bhatia was readying to launch a low-cost airline IndiGo, he roped in Aditya, now 28, as his General Counsel. It was an important responsibility. Bhatia was in talks with aircraft maker Airbus to buy 100 A320s. Aditya once again showed his mettle in handling the legal aspect of the order, the biggest the domestic aviation industry had ever seen at the time. Bhatia was impressed.

Four years later and post IndiGo’s launch, when the airline’s founding President and CEO Bruce Ashby resigned, Bhatia surprised everyone by naming Aditya as the successor.

“One thought Siddhant Sharma (the SpiceJet CEO who had resigned just before Ashby’s departure, almost in a synchronized move) would take over,” says a senior executive from the industry who didn’t want to be named.

Lending credence to the belief was Ghosh being the ‘acting CEO’ for the first few months. He did enough during those months to convince Bhatia about his worthiness for the top job. In August 2008, Bhatia crowned Ghosh as the IndiGo President. The President was all of 32 years old.

“It mattered that he was involved with the airline’s launch almost from the start. And sometimes, you are in the right place, at the right time,” said the executive quoted above.

But the past few months have been a turbulent ride for the normally unflappable Ghosh. Just when IndiGo seemed to have regained the best in on-time performance tag (after Aditya publicly bickered with rivals in early 2017), SpiceJet snatched the crown again November 2017. That month also  brought the worst public relation disaster for the airline.

First, badminton star PV Sindhu took to Twitter to complain about a ‘bad experience’ on an IndiGo flight. Many of the Twitterattis responded, sharing their own episodes with the airline.

A couple of days later, news emerged that IndiGo had fired an employee who shot a video of two of his colleagues manhandling a customer. The two employees were however spared. “That was the mistake that the management led by Aditya did. Instead of firing the whistleblower, they should have sacked the boys who were manhandling the customer. That is just not acceptable in aviation, or any other customer-centric business,” says a former employee of InterGlobe.
Aditya wrote to the Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju, apologising for the incident. But that was not enough. In a 26-page report on “Issues related to improving customers’ satisfaction of airlines” in January, a Parliamentary Panel singled out IndiGo. It said: “The Committee observes that the problems affecting the airlines are not personal; it is institutional. An institution like Indigo has to develop a consumer friendly approach in dealing with their passengers. The Committee believes that being a leader in market share, Indigo needs to look inward and find out the reasons for the discourteous attitude and rude and indifferent behavior of their employees, whether it is their cabin crew or the ground staff. The Committee emphasizes that the arrogant behavior of employees should stop.”

Furthermore, the Committee didn’t take kindly to Aditya’s deposition that the industry is facing a talent issue. “Our Government schools and colleges produce the best students of the country and we have a duty to nurture and promote such students to achieve their full potential. If a particular airline has grown exponentially, they should deploy a proportionate amount to the training of their staff instead of misbehaving and manhandling the passengers or blaming the youngsters from Tier II and III cities and Government schools… "

The controversies seem to have taken some sheen off the airline’s shares. The InterGlobe Aviation stock has lagged that of peers SpiceJet and Jet Airways in the last one year.  While shares of rivals have nearly doubled, InterGlobe shares rose by a more modest 46 per cent.
11/01/18 Prince Mathews Thomas/moneycontrol