India’s fourth-largest airline is struggling with an unstable leadership and an overworked crew

Is there a reason to worry?
Is there a reason to worry?
Image: REUTERS/Regis Duvignau
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The year-end travel season has gone awry for India’s fourth-largest domestic airline GoAir.

The Wadia group-owned carrier has cancelled over 40 domestic flights this week. In a statement yesterday (Dec. 26), a GoAir spokesperson blamed the disruptions on inclement weather in north India, and protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), among other things.

However, the problems may have been aggravated due to a clutch of internal issues, such as pilot shortage, delays in aircraft delivery from manufacturer Airbus, engine issues, and a leadership vacuum.

“GoAir has placed an order for 144 Airbus A320neo aircraft and has experienced delivery delays in November and December,” the airline admitted yesterday, adding that the flight schedule will be back on track by the weekend.

In November, too, GoAir cancelled over 30 flights citing issues with its Pratt & Whitney (P&W) engines, which were later taken out of operation.

“GoAir’s going through the pain of aggressive expansion and growth. If uncorrected, these problems can be alarming in the near future,” Mark Martin, founder and CEO, Martin Consulting, told Quartz.

Unstable leadership

GoAir has witnessed a flurry of exits at the top level lately. Chief executive officer Cornellis Vriewijk quit in February, nine months after taking charge. He was the third CEO to quit in the past four years.

Vriewijk joined GoAir six months after Wolfgang Prock-Schauer left the airline on a bitter note and then checked into rival IndiGo as its chief operating officer in January 2018. The airline has not hired a replacement for Vriewijk yet.

“GoAir, at present, completely lacks leadership. If you look at (rivals) Vistara or IndiGo they are more dynamic in nature. SpiceJet also has (chairman) Ajay Singh in charge of things, but proper leadership is missing in GoAir,” said Ashish Nainan, an aviation analyst at CARE Ratings.

At least 15 other senior officials have also left GoAir in the past 15 months, including its chief operating officer Jyri Strandman, who quit in October 2018. Chief commercial officer (CCO) Manish Ranega left the airline in August 2018, and in October, CFO Sanjay Gupta quit after seven months in the post over performance-related issues. Several vice presidents, departmental heads and general managers, have also resigned.

From family grounds to personal issues, the executives have cited various reasons for their departures.

Overworked crew

GoAir is also battling the problem of staff shortage, which has left its current employees overworked.

On Dec. 23, the sector regulator, Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), cracked down on GoAir for pushing pilots and cabin crew to work in excess of their stipulated hours, a report in The Economic Times newspaper reported. “The inquiry is on and innumerable violations have been found of a serious nature. The airline has been asked to fix them,” the newspaper quoted an official as saying.

The airline acknowledged in a statement yesterday that it experienced extensive flight delays as its crew approached its flight duty time limits (FDTL) in the last two to three days.

FDTL stipulates the maximum flying hours, number of landings and takeoffs allowed in a day, week or month. The airline needs to hire more pilots and crew as it looks to expand.

Engine issues

Glitches in P&W engines are also giving GoAir a hard time.

On Dec. 23, a GoAir-operated Airbus A320neo aircraft that had taken off from Guwahati for Kolkata was forced to turn back because of engine snags. This was the second such incident in as many days. A GoAir A320neo aircraft flying from Mumbai to Chandigarh on Dec. 22 had to make an emergency landing because of engine vibrations. The incidents have stoked fresh safety concerns.

DGCA had earlier asked GoAir, and IndiGo, to modify the glitch-prone P&W engines. Both airlines are expected to replace the engines. “GoAir will abide by and comply with the directives of DGCA and complete the modifications of Pratt & Whitney engines before January 31, 2020,” GoAir said yesterday.

Short-lived woes?

Despite the issues, experts say the airline’s worries will be short-lived.

“GoAir’s problems are not financial in nature, unlike what its rivals are experiencing,” said Martin. He expects the situation to get better once new aircraft and pilots are inducted.

“It (GoAir) is experiencing operational problems. An airline like Air India has a leadership, but it is still struggling,” said Harsh Vardhan, chairman of the Delhi-based Starair Consulting.

Vardhan, however, warned that if the airline does not fix these immediately, it could jeopardise its plans for an initial public offering (IPO). The airline is currently looking to hire advisors for its IPO, according to media reports.