“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” This quote by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson finds a place of pride on the table of Air India (AI) Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) Ashwani Lohani.
By standing up for AI’s 60-year-old employee, who was beaten up by Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad, Lohani showed he is a firm believer in the “employee first” approach. He not only ensured that the MP is barred from travelling on AI, but also managed to get other airlines to stand in solidarity against the unrepentant Gaikwad.
Though he refused to comment on the issue when contacted, Lohani’s March 24 Facebook post is revealing. “Two FIRs of a serious nature and a ban on future air travels imposed by all the air carriers of the nation besides universal condemnation of the person who unabashedly beat up an on-duty Air Indian is a satisfying end to an unsavoury saga. We all need to stand up against those who attempt to damage the social fabric and we all need to stand up for the people we work with. The coming together of all airlines for a just cause is also a matter of great happiness and satisfaction.”
Incidentally, this is not the first time that Lohani has taken on a sitting MP. In November 2015, just three months into his job as AI chief, YSR Congress MP Mithun Reddy had allegedly slapped the airline’s station manager at the Tirupati airport for not allowing him and his relatives to board a plane after the boarding gate was closed. The MP was later arrested on AI’s complaint. Civil aviation minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju had stood by Lohani then as he has done now. In fact, the minister has agreed to frame ‘no-fly list’ guidelines and incorporate them in Civil Aviation Rules.
Lohani, a mechanical engineer from the 1980 batch of the Indian Railway Services, has been seen as a doer, always leading by example. An AI colleague says that as the CMD, Lohani has been given a corporate credit card that he can use to entertain guests. His predecessors have been known to use it—and also misuse it—extensively. However, Lohani has not used it even once since he took over.
“He has not taken a free ticket either for himself or his family. He continues to travel by railways,” says a colleague. “Strictly speaking, the AI CMD, on deputation from another department, is not entitled to freebies usually extended to the chief but all others before him have been availing them. Lohani has not done it even once. He doesn’t even allow us to upgrade tickets of his family,” he adds. Lohani has also stopped the practice of being received at the airport by a battery of officials as he found it too feudal.
It is perhaps this kind of personal integrity that allows him to work fearlessly. A senior railways official, who has worked closely with Lohani, says that he does not believe in status quo. While working as Director of the National Rail Museum—seen as an easy posting—he saw great potential in the heritage of the Indian railways. He was instrumental in getting UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and successfully running ‘The Fairy Queen Express’, the world’s oldest steam locomotive. He found a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for it.
Acquiring the reputation of getting things done, he was appointed as CMD of the Indian Tourism Development Cooperation (ITDC) in 2002 and credited with its turnaround, especially with that of the majestic Ashok Hotel in the Capital. Incidentally, even there he did not spare then junior tourism minister Vinod Khanna. Lohani is believed to have sent him a bill of a few lakhs for the food that Khanna used to order from the Janpath hotel. Khanna apparently paid up without making any fuss.
Lohani also did two stints in Madhya Pradesh, heading the state’s Tourism Development Corporation, ensuring several tourism awards for the state. Lohani’s friends say he often talked about turning around AI if given a chance. In fact, he had written in a blog post in 2009: “Having headed a large hospitality sector, CPSU, in the past, and now a state PSU successfully, I have acquired a fair amount of insight into the successful running of PSUs.... If given a chance, of course, a year is all it would take for a turnaround even for a mammoth organisation like AI.” His friends wonder if Prime Minister Narendra Modi handpicked him for the job to see if he could deliver on his claim.