On May 12, Tata Sons, the owners of Air India announced that Campbell Wilson had been appointed as the Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of Air India (AI) adding that the airline’s board approved the appointment subject to requisite regulatory approvals. In India, any foreign national being appointed to a senior management position needs to be cleared by the Home Land Security, more commonly known as the Ministry of Home Affairs. This is likely to be a mere formality as Wilson comes from a “non-controversial country like News Zealand,” remarked a former Secretary of Civil Aviation, the highest bureaucratic position in the Indian government tasked with laying down and implementing policies for the sector.
Wilson is the second person Tata Sons has named AI’s CEO and MD. Earlier on February 14 the company named IIker Ayci, the former Chairman of Turkish Airlines for AI’s top post. Ayci, however, turned down the offer on March 2 this year. This followed opposition from some organizations that are affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party which runs the government at the Centre.
Wilson, who resigned from Singapore carrier Scoot, a low-cost subsidiary of Singapore Airlines to take on the position in Air India seems cut out for the job according to industry sources who know him and have seen him from close quarters. “He is very capable with a formidable track record. To have made it so far in the SIA hierarchy is a testament to his ability and respect from within and without SIA. He is a balanced person and should be well placed to turn Air India around provided he is given the autonomy to do so. For SIA, a ‘known’ person at the helm of Air India could be a helpful bridge for their ambitions in the Indian market,” said an industry source who knows Wilson well.
Wilson comes to AI at the age of 50 after having spent 26 years with SIA. The person quoted above is probably alluding to the fact that SIA is a 49 percent partner in Vistara, the full-service airline in which Tata Sons owns the remaining 51 percent stake. In October 2021, when Tata Sons were named the successful bidder for AI, the $ 103billion salt to hotels to airline conglomerate became owners of four airlines — Air India, Air India Express, Vistara, and AirAsia India. There is speculation that SIA will buy a stake in AI so as to be a greater shareholder in the third-largest domestic air traffic market in the world. Till now SIA has remained silent on picking up a stake in AI. Indian law permits a foreign airline to acquire up to 49 percent stake in a domestic airline.
India could be a culture shock to Wilson
Another industry source who was born in Singapore and is working in the aviation sector added that Wilson is a very friendly but steely person. “He is very well experienced and wool will not easily be pulled over his eyes, by AI folks or the owners. Having said that, he has had little exposure to India and there will perhaps be something of a culture shock,” he added.
Another industry source who also has seen Wilson from close quarters does not agree with this assessment, pointing out that Wilson is extremely good at adapting to different cultures and working with teams to achieve better results. “He did this in Singapore, Canada, Hong Kong, and Japan with great results. He even adapted to the full-service and LCC environments. He also transformed SIA sales into a much stronger sales force during his term as Senior Vice President Sales and Marketing by reorganizing and upskilling the Sales Organisation,” the industry source said.
Yet another industry source pointed out that when Wilson was in Japan, he had to deal with the Fukushima disaster and managed the situation extremely well with SIA teams who were badly affected by it.
Wilson has a track record of launching new flights and reporting profits in the airline he is heading is something that should help AI. The airline has reported losses every year since 2008. Before the government sold AI it was making a loss of over $2.5 million a day! The government had to keep pumping funds into AI to keep it afloat.
Wilson brings a wealth of experience to AI, which besides its other problems is also dealing with a post-COVID world where international travel has yet to open up. The success that Wilson exhibited in launching Scoot flights to various parts of the world can probably be replicated with the Boeing 787 and 777 that both AI and Vistara have, thereby opening up new routes in the US, Europe, Australia, Africa, and possibly also Latin America.
Former Senior Deputy Editor at Business Line (aka The Hindu Business Line)