Iron Man of Air India

Known as ‘turnaround man,’ it would have been a rude shock had Air India CMD Ashwini Lohani allowed Gaikwad to go scot-free after manhandling Air India staff

By DANFES

The Air India took a tough stand of putting Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad in the no-fly list for assaulting its 60-year-old employee on March 23. The man behind this unprecedented step is Air India Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) Ashwani Lohani whose motto is “employee first”.

For those who know Lohani closely, it would have been a rude shock had Air India allowed Gaikwad to go scot-free for unabashedly boasting that he hit the AI staffer “25 times”. Known as a no-nonsense man, Lohani immediately had two FIRs registered against the Shiv Sena lawmaker. He followed it up by bringing all other domestic airlines on board to put Gaikwad on the no-fly list. Lohani made sure that the Lok Sabha MP had to travel by train until an apology comes from Gaikwad.

While Lohani went all the way to protect his employees and get them justice, he, in turn, had had the solid backing of Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju in all the decisions which were taken following the unpleasant incident.

Lohani seems to have been given the thumbs-up not just by the Civil Aviation Minister but also by Prime Minister Narendra Modi because the episode has wide political ramifications. Both BJP and Shiv Sena are alliance partners at the Centre, in Maharashtra and in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

The two parties are going through a love-hate relationship. A discord between them can impact their alliance in Maharashtra and BMC. While BJP is the senior partner in the state government, Shiv Sena is governing BMC with the help of BJP.

BACKING EMPLOYEES

However, unmindful of the politics, defending the employees and working for their welfare is ingrained in Lohani’s approach. Hence, this is not the first time that the Air India CMD has taken on the high and mighty for the sake of his employees.

He had adopted a similarly tough posture when YSR Congress MP Mithun Reddy had allegedly slapped Air India manager Rajasekhar in Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh on November 28, 2015. The airline officer, who suffered a fracture, was targeted for not allowing Reddy’s relatives inside the aircraft as the boarding time was over.

As in Gaikwad’s case, an FIR was registered against the Rajampet MP and 15 of his followers under several sections of the IPC. Reddy was arrested on January 17, 2016 and sent to 14-day judicial custody.

Even then, the Civil Aviation Minister had supported Lohani in acting against the powerful local MP. This leads one to the question: Why does Lohani back his employees to the hilt? The Air India CMD believes that any organization can succeed on the high morale and satisfaction of its employees.

TURNAROUND MAN

Lohani is known as the “turnaround man” too. A glaring example is the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (MPTDC) which was a loss-making body till 2003 under the Congress government headed by Digvijaya Singh. It was on the brink of getting privatized. Protests, strikes and submitting of memorandums by the MP Tourism employees against privatization were the order of the day.

Uma Bharati, who succeeded Digvijaya Singh in 2003, brought Lohani as MP Tourism’s Managing Director. Lohani’s first step was to get the decision of MP Tourism’s privatization reverted. Subsequently, he took a number of steps to boost the sagging morale of the employees.

He got the long-pending promotions and increments of the employees done. This brought cheers on the faces of the employees. Simultaneously, he also launched the renovation of all the properties of MP Tourism which were in a neglected state. He brought in a professional culture and also promoted and publicized MP Tourism.

These steps worked wonders. Very soon, MPTDC started registering profits and winning national awards, all because of Lohani’s focus primarily on employees’ welfare. His efforts in extensive branding, innovation, infrastructure development and marketing of MP Tourism resulted in the state receiving four National Tourism Awards in 2008, including the award for the “Best tourism performing state in the country” and three National Tourism Awards in 2009. In 2015, Madhya Pradesh received six national tourism awards from the Centre, the highest by any state.

Lohani already had the expertise of turning around India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), including the Ashoka Hotel in the national capital, as its Chairman and Managing Director in 2002-2003. This experience came in handy in the case of MP Tourism.

His priority to employees endears him to them. No wonder, as a token of their love and appreciation, the railway employees of Patratu in Jharkhand created an “Ashwani Garden” in his name in 1989.

How does Lohani get the nerve up to take bold decisions?

Besides being highly qualified, the Air India CMD is honest to the core and incorruptible. For his personal journeys, he and members of his family buy air tickets. Despite being officially entitled to entertain guests through a corporate credit card, Lohani has never used it. As Managing Director of MPTDC, he did not eat in its hotels and restaurants for free. This quality makes him fearless.

Adding to his personal integrity are Lohani’s qualifications and professionalism which stand him in good stead. An Indian Railways Service of Mechanical Engineers (IRSME) of the 1980 batch, Lohani holds Limca Book of Records for four engineering degrees in mechanical, electrical, metallurgical and Electronics and Telecommunications streams.

HIS ACHIEVEMENTS

Lohani set a Guinness World Record in 1998 by running the Fairy Queen Express hauled by the oldest working steam locomotive in the world. While working as the Director of National Rail Museum, he successfully piloted the nomination of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that was declared as a world heritage site in 1999. While working as the Tourism Director and CMD of ITDC, he successfully piloted the nomination of the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya that was declared as a world heritage site in 2002.

As Delhi’s Divisional Railway Manager, the New Delhi railway station was awarded the National Tourism Award in March 2011 and February 2012 in the category of the most tourist-friendly station. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in its audit report on the 2010 Commonwealth Games appreciated the improvement works done at the New Delhi station making Delhi Division the only Government Department to have earned appreciation for infrastructure works related to the games.

With such qualifications, experience and expertise in turnarounds, Lohani was perhaps considered the most suited person to change the fate of bleeding Air India. To that end, he was appointed as AI CMD in August 2015. The Gaikwad incident is one instance of Lohani’s effort to win the confidence of employees and with their help turn around Air India.