Friday, March 04, 2022

Jet Airways needs just what its new CEO Sanjiv Kapoor believes in: Dare to be different

Two battered airlines in India had been looking for chief executives to turn around flight paths for good: Air India and Jet Airways. While Tatas' Air India zeroed in on former Turkish Airlines chairman Ilker Ayci (he has since declined the post), new Jet promoters Jalan Kalrock Consortium picked Sanjiv Kapoor (a Vistara and SpiceJet veteran).

The Tata Group took over debt-laden national carrier Air India from the government on January 27. The October 2021 takeover marked Air India's return to the conglomerate after nearly 69 years when JRD Tata founded it. In February, Ayci was named the new CEO.

Later, reports said Ayci was an adviser to Tayyip Erdogan when the Turkish president was mayor of Istanbul. It was also reported that his appointment would need clearances from the government—a routine process for all expatriate CEO hires. Declining the post, Ayci has blamed sections of media for attempts to "colour his appointment".

While Tatas look afresh for an urgent revamp of Air India, a JRD Tata fan has been picked by the Jalan consortium to propel Jet's engines. Accepting the Jet CEO role, Kapoor said though Jet has been out of operation for three years, it has a large fan base who miss it every day and can't wait for it to take to the skies again.

The airline industry fascinated Kapoor since childhood, he had written when quitting as Vistara chief commercial officer (CCO) in December 2019. He had said "in the last dozen years or so of my working life" he wanted to "think more about longer-term goals and post-retirement plans". Later, he joined Oberoi Hotels & Resorts as president.

His return to the aviation sector confirms his fascination. "I have memories in Class 1 of drawing aircraft with wheels and then erasing the wheels after I would imagine the aircraft has taken off," Kapoor wrote in his Vistara resignation letter. In the letter, Kapoor had mentioned JRD 16 times.

Kapoor helped Vistara grow from nine aircraft and 45 flights a day to 39 aircraft and over 200 flights a day from March 2016 to December 2019.

A Wharton alumnus, Kapoor started his airline career with Northwest Airlines (now merged with Delta) in the US in 1997, where he worked in finance and corporate planning.

"I came back to India, probably the toughest aviation market in the world with high costs, low yields, bruising competition, and severe infrastructure constraints, after having worked many years outside, to take on the reins of a struggling SpiceJet in November 2013," Kapoor had written.

As per Kapoor's words, he saw SpiceJet through a "tumultuous period when oil prices were at $120+". He said the team nursed the airline through "a cultural, operational, and brand transformation, to change of ownership and return to profits by early 2015".

Kapoor's experience here would help Jet restart its engines even as Brent charges towards $120 a barrel amid geopolitical tensions, wars, and supply disruptions. Brent crude futures rose as high as $119.84 a barrel on March 3, the highest since May 2012, as US sanctions on refineries raise concerns that Russian oil and gas exports could be targeted next against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war.

04/03/22 Amrita Das/CNBC TV18

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