Air India, Tata and customer satisfaction: How to create value

Gautam Mahajan

My first trip with Indian Airlines was around 1954 in a Dakota DC3, and with Air India in 1968, on the much-heralded Boeing 707.

Since then, I have been an Air India fan and a loyal customer. Not to say I did not have some bad experiences, but many more were good. For instance, there was the time we were held up in Paris for a day to change engines and Air India took wonderful care of us (got us wonderful rooms, transportation, meals, had good updates on the plane departure) or the time the stewardess sat with my wife who was traveling alone because our small child would not stop crying. Or the time Indian Airlines staff took care of passengers stranded in Mumbai because of the rains on 26 July 2005. I wrote about this, and the article appeared in 26 newspapers. I wrote to the Managing Director, suggesting he congratulate the staff, but got no reply!

I would defend Air India to my friends as being a great airline even though they would cite poor experiences. Till now: my flight AI173, Delhi to San Francisco, nonstop, a few days ago in May 2022 on Business Class changed all this.

It began with the booking process. The Air India website would show all business class flights to San Francisco were full or not available. Why? I called someone in AI reservations whom I knew, and she said the website was not fully ok and advised me to get to a travel agent who have access to different websites. Through a travel agent, I bought a business class ticket. He had to go to the Air India office twice to assign seats because the system was down.

But this was the beginning of my problems. At the airport, when I checked in, I was asked for information I had filled in during my on-line check-in (By the way the mobile check in was more complex. It wanted me to upload my passport etc. Why?). That was a waste of my time and now also a waste of time for the ground staff. I asked the airline representative to make a note of this issue and let the powers that be know. I knew she would not (because this is typical, the front-line staff and their supervisors are not trained to escalate systemic problems), and so I asked for the supervisor. No response! Just ignored the request. At check-in, I requested a change of seats and was told the flight was full. As she was handing me the boarding cards, she suddenly stated seat 14A was non operative and she would get me two seats together. Since she had earlier said it was a full flight, I asked how? She said we would get a window and an aisle and not 2 of the 3 middle seats, which was fine by me. But all this would happen at the boarding gate, she said. Another woman came and said she promised this and that she would be at the gate. She said her name was Aruna and she was in charge. A promise but no change in the boarding card.

When we got to the gate, there were two people there on the check-in. The young man was busy with a customer. The oldish woman was sitting and ignored us. She finally got up and was leaving and I asked, “Do you work here?” She said “Yes”, and tried to brush me off by saying boarding will start soon. I asked if she was too senior to take care of me. Then I told her my issue, and she checked and we had 8E and 8F, middle seats and an aisle. I asked for a window and an aisle, but the young man said 7 or 8 seats were non-functional. Can you imagine 8 seats at 2 lakhs each or 43 crores over a year if the plane flew 300 days! Not to worry, the plane will get re-furbished soon, said the older woman.

The ground staff did not tell us that 8D which was next to our newly assigned seats, was non operative and therefore that seat was empty. They then requested an elderly Sardar and his wife to switch with us and gave us 8G and H. Which was fine except that 8E broke down when the Sardarji was lying on it and was not able to get out of the seat that was now in a prone position for sleeping. He needed a number of crew members to help him off the seat…. So much for the maintenance. As my son who calls Air India Air Village said, if the flight is so poorly maintained, how can they manage and maintain systems?

Also, my TV screen and the remote was not working—so much for on board entertainment!

During breakfast and lunch my food tray would open at an angle, and never straighten.

Before all this, my wife and I had gone to the AI lounge, and all the food staff were not wearing masks, and I asked them to, but they ignored me. The ground staff should have noticed this but they did not. The air conditioning was not working. Why did the staff not notice? Or do they care or do they accept all this. Is this a “chalta hai” (anything would do) attitude?

The staff on the plane were excellent.

Now, as the Tatas take over AI, I have several suggestions keeping customer value in mind: I work in the area of customer value and creating value. We have a value school at Kobe University in Japan, one at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, a Value Research Centre at the Doshisha University; a Value Creation Centre at Aalborg, Denmark and one at the University of Maryland. I am Founder Editor of the Journal of Creating Value with Phil Kotler, Steve Vargo, Jag Sheth and Tata’s Mukundan on the Board. We have done customer value work for Tata Power, Tata Fertiliser, Tata Chemicals, SAIL, Birlas, ITC etc.

I mention this to show the world is embracing value. I believe in co-creation and co-operation (two people working or operating together to get a mutually value creating solution).

Also, I suggest my 7A’s for Creating Value for Air India:

7As for executives holds for leaders also:

Awareness: Leaders and executives and frontline people must be aware of things around them, they must be curious, they must want to know more.
If executives do not notice the staff not wearing masks or poor air conditioning, how can you change the situation?

Attitude: Your people must have a super attitude, positive, forward thinking and multi-dimensional. Able to be strategic and innovative to practical. Some executives are functional in thinking, and this needs to change. Mind-set plays a major role.

If you promise, your attitude must make sure you follow through, which Aruna did not. Or you must have the wonderful attitude of the in-flight crew.

If you do not try to get things rectified, then problems get larger. If you do not notice (awareness) or do not care (attitude) how can things be rectified?

We have run customer centric circles to get front line people and staff to take charge and talk about problems and solutions. Attitudes change as people become aware of what they are doing wrong and what they should be doing, Customer Circles have worked at Tatas, Birla’s, L&T etc.

Ability: Much of this is innate, but some comes from learning and experience. A great mind-set helps here.

Ability is important to be caring

Agility: This comes from a mind-set and mental make-up

Adaptability: Being able to change with circumstances

Anticipation: Being able to be ahead of others by forward thinking and view. Part of this comes from a 6th sense which is developed in your mind

Ambidextrousness: Capability of doing more than one thing at a time; capacity to think of different things

There was great hope for Tatas at AI. Please do not let things get out of hand. Work on the problems

  1. Appoint a problem noter and a problem solver particularly on what the customer sees. For example, does the check in work and is it synchronised with what the check-in counter gets? Does the seat work, does the TV screen work, do the escape jackets work? Is safety in place? Solve these problems pronto. I was told spare controllers for the inflight screens do not exist. Why not? You have no excuse of not having spares on-ground at least.  Also, do not stop at solving individual problems. If the problem is systemic, change the system so that others do not have the same problem. Remember, that very few customers complain and even fewer do something about it, like I am trying to do. 
  2. What causes staff to get frustrated? Use Customer Centric Circles to solve their problems, and you will solve many customer problems also. 
  3. Do not run the airline with bean counters but with a heart. Most passengers will accept problems if they are brought into the loop. Use co-creation and co-operation.
  4. See how you can sell faulty seats with discounts (so the customer knows what he is getting into). How can you have full planes? How do you make sure everything works? Prioritise engineering, safety, good planes that take-off and land, and happy passengers when they take off and when they land. I am sure Tatas are trying all these.
  5. And for attitudes of the ground staff, get this changed. Use Customer Centric Circles approach as told in my book Total Customer Value Management. 

Get people to be aware and get the 7As. Don’t try to get to customer delight on day 1 that may impact only a few customers. That will come with time. However, get the basics right and you will reach the top. Work on this!

As my son said to me, imagine if you were flying cattle class.

Post Note:

I returned on Air India from San Francisco to Delhi on the 13th June. The flight and ground service was good. Happy to report all business class seats were occupied, which meant the seats were working. Tatas and Air India can do it. More power to them!


You can reach the author, who is a thought leader and founder Editor Journal of Creating Value, at Mahajan@CustomerValueFoundation.com for your comments. He is traveling to Tokyo by Air India (as he has reason to like them) for the 5th Global Conference on Creating Value in Kanazawa, Japan on September 2-4, 2022. One could register and join this event. See https://smartconf.jp/content/gccv5th

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