Tata Group chairman Natarajan Chandrasekaran during the Tata Motors annual general meeting in Mumbai on August 3, 2018. Photo: AFP

Tata Group has decided to appoint an insider to head newly-acquired airline Air India after its earlier foreign appointee declined to take the top job.

The airline’s board appointed Tata Sons Executive Chairman N Chandrasekaran as the chairman of Air India at a board meeting last week.

On February 14, the salt-to-software conglomerate announced that former Turkish Airlines chairman Ilker Ayci would be the CEO of Air India. However, a fortnight later Ayci declined the offer, stating there was an attempt in India to ‘color’ his appointment in an undesirable manner.

Some right-wing political organizations in India were upset over Ayci’s past links with current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. From 1994 to 1998, Ayci worked as an adviser to Erdogan when he was the mayor of Istanbul.

Swadeshi Jagran Manch, a right-wing pressure group, urged the government to block the appointment over “national security concerns.” The appointment of a foreign national as the chief executive of an airline in India requires government clearance. He or she will have to clear a mandatory background check by the Indian Home Ministry.

The Tata Group took over the airline on January 27 this year and is yet to announce a reconstituted board of directors. The three executive directors, who were appointed by the government when the airline was in its control, are still serving on the Air India board.

On October 8 last year, the conglomerate won the bid to acquire the state-run Air India by offering 180 billion rupees.

The new management will have to upgrade Air India’s aging fleet and improve its financials and operational efficiency. The airline has about 141 aircraft, but many of them are old. Air India’s on-time performance and customer service are also poor compared with its competitors.

After the takeover of the airline, Chandrasekaran addressed Air India employees and said: “We are totally committed to making Air India the world-class airline it deserves to be.”

He said the new management would focus on customer service, technological advancements (website, application, front- and back-office systems, etc), upgrading the fleet and ensuring the world’s best off-flight hospitality service.

He told the employees that to accomplish this a huge transformation will be required, “probably the largest transformation, change, all of you would ever go through.”

However, the 90-year-old airline has lucrative landing slots across the world. The recent announcement by the Indian government to restart scheduled international flights from March 27 with 100% capacity is expected to benefit the airline.

The government had imposed a ban on international flights on March 23, 2020, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Chandrasekaran has been associated with the Tata Group since 1987 and last month was reappointed as Tata Sons’ Executive Chairman for another five years.