Tata Sons has named Campbell Wilson the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Managing Director (MD) of Air India. Wilson is the CEO of Singapore Airlines’ subsidiary, low-cost carrier Scoot. The Air India board has approved the appointment subject to requisite regulatory approvals, finally ending the search for a CEO after IIker Ayci, the former chairman of Turkish Airlines, turned down the job on 2 March.
There’s no word yet from Tata Sons on when Wilson will take over at AI. A statement by Singapore Airlines suggests that it could be after 16 June, his last day at Scoot. He will be the second SIA old hand to head a Tata group airline. The Tatas own four airlines: Air India Express, AI, AirAsia (which will be submerged into AI Express) and Vistara. Vinod Kannan, an old SIA hand, is heading Vistara, which should help the airlines ensure they don’t cut into each other’s space.
But what Wilson, 50, a New Zealander, really brings to the table for AI is his impressive record of making profits in the difficult business of airlines, while delivering a good product.
The financial mess in AI is its biggest handicap. The airline has been burning cash at the unenviable rate of over ₹20 crores a day. AI, which has reported losses every year since its merger with Indian Airlines in FY08, had accumulated losses of ₹70,820 crore till 31 March 2020. Limited operations in the pandemic year, FY 2020-21, shrank its expenses and, therefore, losses ( ₹19,083.33 crores in FY21 compared to ₹36,290.17 crores in FY20).
While SIA reported a quarterly net profit of Singapore $85 million (US$62.8 million) in quarter ended December 2021, reversing the operating cash burn that it had been experiencing since the start of the pandemic, and becoming the first Asian carrier to turn in benefits after the covid-19 outbreak. SIA, including Scoot, carried 1.1 million passengers during the quarter, more than five times the number from the previous year and double that of the second quarter of FY2021-22.
SIA made the turnaround by significantly growing its passenger numbers, as Singapore opened to travelers via the VTL (vaccinated travel lane) program that allows vaccinated travelers from select countries, including India, the United States, the United Kingdom and some European and Asian countries, quarantine-free entry into the island nation.
As demand created by the VTL made flights viable, passenger capacity (measured in available seat-kilometres) grew 183.8% year-on-year. Cargo flown revenue grew 81.6% to Singapore $1,351 million, crossing the Singapore $1 billion mark for the first time ever in the airline’s history.
Importantly, the growth in passenger numbers was led by the flights that SIA restored to 12 destinations in India, including VTL services to Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi. It also summarized flights to a host of destinations in South East Asia.
The promise Wilson holds out, therefore, for AI is of a turnaround, even if at a pace that is gradual and modest relative to SIA’s spectacular performance. For AI, troubles are chronic and the Indian policy and business operations ecosystem isn’t as streamlined as Singapore’s.
Wilson has performed in both the full service and the low-cost carrier (LCC) environments and is credited with completely transforming SIA’s sales force. His experience of him in Scoot will come in handy for AI in the domestic Indian market, which has tremendous potential for growth for low-cost air travel. All the same, AI is a full-service airline and has much to gain from emulating SIA’s service quality standards onboard the aircraft and in the passenger cabin, which the Tatas will no doubt expect Wilson to deliver.
Known for being good at adapting to diverse cultures and working with a variety of teams for better results, Wilson enjoys a reputation for friendliness and nerves of steel. Besides Singapore, the home base of SIA, he has also had stints in Canada, Hong Kong and Japan. When in Japan, he dealt with the shock of the Fukushima disaster, managing the crisis, and especially the SIA staff who were badly affected by the tragedy.
He joined SIA in April 1996 and has been CEO of Scoot twice. First, as its founding CEO between 2011 and 2016, when it was still a long-haul, low-cost carrier before being merged with short-haul low-cost carrier Tigerair. He returned to Scoot as CEO in April 2020.
Here’s hoping AI has finally found its turn-around man.