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Above: Captain JJ Nijhawan with the Jet Airways crew

As the Jet Airways crumbles, the emotional staff is appealing to politicians to keep it afloat. So what was its USP and why did it command so much loyalty? A senior pilot recounts his days there…

By Shobha John

To understand the fall of Jet Airways and why it has evoked so much loyalty among its beleaguered and distressed staff, one should talk to someone who has given his sweat and blood to the airline. Meet Captain JJ Nijhawan, 61, a Jet employee for 24 years and who last flew the Airbus 330s. This senior commander and trainer looks back at the good times with nostalgia, regret and sadness.

Speaking to India Legal at his posh flat in ATS Village in Noida, Nijhawan said he joined Jet in 1995 when it had just converted an air taxi operator’s licence to an airline one and had only four B737s. This former navy pilot left the forces after 15 years of service to take up employment in commercial aviation. Though that was the time when others airlines such as Damania (later NEPC), East West and ModiLuft were on the horizon, he chose Jet as he found the attitude professional. He was selected after nine rounds of various tests.

“It was my first job in commercial aviation and I never regretted it for a single day. I don’t remember ever taking sick leave in the 24 years that I worked for this beloved airline. I wouldn’t party late or drink and would take precautions whenever I felt I was going to fall ill. I wanted to make myself available for the company at all times and knew that we pilots were the work horses who kept it running,” he said. The loyalty and devotion was returned by Jet Airways with equal fervour.

Nijhawan remembers starting his job here on a stipend of Rs 10,000 in 1995. His first salary was Rs 44,000 per month as a first officer, which went up to Rs 1.25 lakh as a captain in 1997. It finally reached Rs 12 lakh (gross) in December 2018 as per his last payslip. His rise within the company was meteoric as he became Operations Manager, Western Region; Operations Manager, Northern Region; executive pilot; instructor on the B737s and finally line training captain on the A330s. This allowed him to fly to many international destinations—New York, Brussels, Amsterdam, South Africa, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore…—he had the world at his feet. These pilots also got allowances which were the highest among Indian airlines—$230 per night when the going norm was $100 per night. “The food options were many on our flights. I especially liked the ‘Seer’ fish we got from Amsterdam and Brussels. It was a very satisfying feeling,” he said.

The pilots were looked after well. Nijhawan got 16 Jet tickets per year and could also avail of BookMyIdentity, a reciprocal arrangement Jet had with 125 airlines globally. If the pilots were out of town flying, the pay cheque would be sent home through a peon. On festivals, the salary was given a day earlier. “These small gestures made us feel part of a family,” said Nijhawan wistfully. “Even at office parties, held once a year, everyone would be invited, including the loaders. There was no hierarchy.”

Professionally, everything in Jet was top class, including the quality of plane maintenance, he said. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were followed diligently, be it by engineers, cockpit crew or cabin crew. “It was a complete five star experience. Cabin crew grooming was also strict. Instructors would be there in the cabin crew dispatch section to see that not a hair was out of place, there were no tattoos, the dress was properly ironed… Those who didn’t follow these SOPs were sent home and a replacement given for that flight.”

The selection process for pilots was tough too, he said. The standards were high and technical competence was ensured through constant training and 10 simulator sessions lasting four hours each initially. Before that, the pilots were given computer-based training (CBT) of 30 hours, which was like a mock simulator. “As CBT is not a requirement of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), most airlines don’t have them, but Jet did,” explained Nijhawan. “We also had the highest number of simulators which no other airline in India had—two for the 737s and one each for the A330s and the B777s.”

Ask him about Jet Airways founder and chairman Naresh Goyal and Nijhawan has only good words for him despite the flak he is now getting.

“He was a hands-on boss and humble with the staff. There was no aura about him. One could pass him by and not know he was the owner of India’s largest private airline. He would often come into the cockpit in the earlier days when it was allowed and was receptive to ideas. He would speak to everybody—pilots, cabin crew, commercial staff, loaders—in an effort to get feedback. He wanted to give the best experience to the passenger.”

So what went wrong with this fine airline? Nijhawan guesses that the downfall began when one low-cost carrier (LCC) stormed into the market and Goyal was given concocted data and wrong feedback by his cronies. “Jet tired to copy the LCC model. But how can a full service carrier do what an LCC is doing? In the domestic sector, we closed down lucrative routes and flew to places LCCs were flying. But our planes were not configured for this. They were heavier as we carried food, water and newspapers, had extra cabin crew, our planes had greater cushioning of seats, etc. This meant we had to carry more fuel, which cost us more. However, we had started charging LCC fares. So we started losing money, but the passengers gained in the process.”

Also, the buying out of Air Sahara by Jet Airways in 2007 for Rs 1,450 crore probably dealt another body blow to the airline. Air Sahara was renamed JetLite and became a budget carrier. Then Jet launched another LCC, Jet Konnect, and strangely merged JetLite and Jet Konnect and operated as Jet Konnect. These, on the face of it, seemed like bad commercial decisions.

The nemesis began a year ago when the Jet management proposed a salary cut, which was immediately shot down by its pilots. Jet also wanted to wet lease its ATRs to TrueJet but the pilots again rejected it, said Nijhawan. In the meantime, five 777s which were dry leased to Turkish Airlines were returned and became white elephants for the company. The salary too started coming in tranches and is up to date only till December 2018, he said.

Looking back, Nijhawan has only pleasant memories to savour. From a middle class background where his father was a chemical engineer, he was catapulted to upper middle class, thanks to Jet. His two daughters were given the best education abroad. One of them is a pilot with Jet. “I used to stay in Jal Vayu Vihar in Noida, a middle class locality, and now I am staying in ATS Village, a prized area, in a 2,900 sqft penthouse with a swimming pool. What more could I ask for? I was also able to invest in three properties in Noida and Gurugram, though they were bad investments and I lost a lifetime’s old age security on them. That’s life.”

As for the future course of action, Nijhawan has been approached by some airlines in India and one international carrier. He said he would work for an Indian carrier and is ready for the long haul—more work and less money. “Life has taken a turn and I am resigned to my fate. I used to fly some 980 hours annually on the 737s and some 650 hours on the wide-bodied A330s. So I am used to slogging and am ready for it even at 61 years. I have another four years to fly and I want to continue working. I am a practical man.” He is also doing distance MBA from Amity University.

Ask him about Naresh Goyal and he said: “He is a businessman and was in the aviation business to make money.” He looks back with fondness at his cockpit colleagues, the smart and efficient cabin crew, many of whom were from the north-east and are now on the road for no fault of theirs and the commercial staff.

And as Jet Airways slips to fourth position in the domestic market and other airlines gobble up its slots, planes and crew, the abiding feeling is one of tremendous loss and sadness at the fall of this celebrated airline.

Nijhawan has one advice to prevent other airlines from sinking too—have a basic minimum fare on various routes so that airlines don’t undercut each other. Also, reduce fuel taxes as these are among the highest in the world. Fuel accounts for some 40 percent of an airline’s expenditure. Also, with the regulator being pro-management, staff of airlines is left to fend for itself when laid off.

Jet’s loss has been the gain of India’s two major LCCs. IndiGo’s market share in January-March increased from 39.7 percent to 44.3 percent, while SpiceJet followed with 13.6 percent.

Meanwhile, Jet’s distressed employees are appealing to politicians to restart the airline. Perhaps, like Nijhawan, they too should see the writing on the wall, and move on.

There are always new horizons to conquer.

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