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CEO Wanted. Interested?

Key positions at airlines lie vacant  Feb 22, 2009

Mumbai - It isn’t just passengers that India’s airlines are missing, they’re short of several key executives, too.

And, as losses soar in the wake of an economic slowdown that has resulted in fewer people travelling by air, and those that do, preferring to fly economy instead of business, the trend is only likely to intensify, say airline executives.

The trend seems to be the result of three factors: executives leaving the loss-ridden business for greener pastures; employees quitting because they are finding it increasingly difficult to meet promoter- or shareholder-expectations; and firms choosing not to fill up these slots because they expect to continue making losses at least in the short term—with or without key executives.

“I am just lucky to have quit the airline industry at the right time. People are now shying away from this once-glamorous sector,” said a senior executive who quit Jet Airways (India) Ltd in 2008.

“Though it is vital infrastructure, there is no respite from losses in the near future. You will see more top management personnel quitting airlines,” added this person who spoke on condition of anonymity.

An analyst with a Mumbai brokerage said that the situation in the airline business was going from bad to worse. “Top-level airline executives are quitting since it is a difficult industry where there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” added this person, who did not want to be identified.

On Wednesday, Jet Airways announced that its group chief executive officer (CEO) Ravi Chaturvedi, formerly a senior executive at Procter and Gamble Co.’s regional operations, had resigned over “personal reasons”. Jet hadn’t announced a replacement for Chaturvedi till late Thursday.

Last July, Maunu von Lueders resigned as CEO of JetLite (India) Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Jet Airways, barely three months after taking over. Jet is yet to fill that position too.

The analyst at the brokerage said it was unlikely that airlines would rush to fill vacant positions at a time when business has considerably slowed. “They would want to be lean while slowing and fat while growing.”

Not everyone is convinced this is the right strategy.

A second analyst with a different Mumbai brokerage said the absence of key executives would be felt in the long term, although it won’t hurt the airline immediately. This analyst asked not to be identified citing company policy on interactions with the media.

At present, vacant positions exist at discount carrier SpiceJet Ltd where several key executives left late last year. Currently, the airline has no chief financial officer, head of customer services, head of marketing and head of human resources. CEO Sanjay Aggarwal, who came on board in October, said the airline is looking to hire people.

And at GoAirlines (India) Pvt. Ltd, key positions such as vice-president (customer service), vice-president (finance), vice-president (marketing), vice-president (revenue management) and vice-president (procurement and commercial) are vacant. An email to GoAir remained unanswered.

Interestingly, Kingfisher Airlines Ltd has been looking for a CEO for at least three years after Nigel Harwood quit in 2006. Chairman Vijay Mallya himself has been performing the CEO’s role.

An executive at a private airline admitted that work is no longer fun, but stressful. There is pressure on airlines from promoters, investors, lenders, regulators, even the government, added this person, who did not want to be identified.

Aggarwal, however, said that “it is fun working with airlines, at least with SpiceJet”.

He added that he joined SpiceJet “purely because of passion and optimism for the Indian aviation sector. It will bounce back”.

Key positions at airlines lie vacant
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