Sunday, 19 July 2009

Maharajah begs for its survival

The last time I flew on India’s national carrier – Air India – was in August 2000. I was returning from India when my flight was delayed almost a full twenty four hours. My plane, an ageing Boeing 747-200, over twenty years old, developed a technical snag in Dubai which meant it couldn’t make the journey across the Arabian Sea until engineers from Bombay flew out spares there. I was used to the customary one or two hours delay with Air India, but this was extraordinary. My father wrote a letter of complaint to the airline after returning to UK, but he needn’t have bothered. There was no reply, except to say the airline would look into his complaint, but in all likelihood the letter probably just ended up in the waste bin with all the other letters of complaint at the Air India office.

I have never experienced such appalling customer service on an airline as Air India. So it comes as no surprise that I learn today that Air India is on the brink of collapse. Most airlines around the world, including British Airways, are struggling to cope with the current economic downturn, but Air India’s problems have been brewing for over fifteen years due to neglect. Today it neither has enough money to pay its daily operating costs nor the salaries of its bloated workforce of 31,000 employees. Last month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had asked Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel to prepare a restructuring plan by the month-end.

The restructuring plan will be presented to a committee on 25 July, and it is likely to include a number of changes in return for equity infusion from the government and other financial support. It is not easy to downsize Air India’s powerful unionized workforce, so Praful Patel is trying to involve them in the restructuring process. Measures are likely to include a recruitment freeze for the next three years, cut loss making routes, return leased planes to lessors, and defer deliveries of some new planes. Already Praful Patel has sought to change the management board within thirty days, bringing in top executives with proven track record from elsewhere.

It remains to be seen how successful this restructuring plan is going to be, but one thing for sure is that without a radical overhaul the airline is bound to fail. A few tweaks here and there is simply not going to be enough, for Air India has been steadily losing market share since the Indian civil aviation sector was liberalised in the early 1990s to both foreign and domestic operators. “Instead of meeting competition head on though, Air India allowed its decades of problems to pile up and up,” said Peter Morris, chief economist of Ascend, the London-based global air transport industry consultancy firm.

After years of pampering as India’s national carrier, the root of Air India’s problem was simply its inability to perform in a competitive market. “While every airline in the country calibrated their business model with appropriate cost and revenues structure to meet competition, Air India failed to capitalize on its dominant position, a position any airline would give anything to have,” said Morris. Air India also suffered from political interference, under investment in its fleet, and a weak management.

“I think the only way to make Air India viable again is privatization,” said Vivek Gupta, senior consultant with the Hyderabad-based ICMR Center for Management Research. “That is the key because AI’s management has never been serious about running AI as a competitive business. Privatization will allow AI to shed its national carrier tag, which looks imminent anyway, and will make it easier for the airline to focus on customer service and competition.”

Affectionately known as the “Maharajah” after its mascot for many years, Air India has unfortunately suffered the fate of many maharajahs since Indira Gandhi abolished the privy purse in 1971, and been reduced to the begging bowl. To survive in the fiercely competitive civil aviation market an airline has to be very nimble. Air India’s future seems far from rosy as it fights for its survival. The best thing the Indian government can do is bail it out one last time and privatise it. Then if it goes to the wall, let it go to the wall.

Monday, 6 July 2009

My visit to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea

Over the centuries a visit to the biblical city of Jerusalem has been a prized opportunity for many Christian pilgrims from various parts of the world. I have always had a personal ambition to visit Jerusalem – the city where Jesus Christ once walked, taught, died and rose from the dead; and finally I got my chance on Saturday 20 June 2009 due to a mixture of luck and circumstances related to work. There were ten other people on the tour bus with me from Haifa, in northern Israel, all of whom were visiting Jerusalem for the first time like myself.

The weather was gloriously sunny. After travelling south, parallel to the Mediterranean Sea, we turned east and passed Tel Aviv - the main commercial centre of Israel - and Ben Gurion Airport. Then the bus began to climb the Judean Mountains where Jerusalem is situated. As we made our way into the city I saw landmarks, such as old carefully preserved tanks, that Jerusalem has seen many attacks and conquests during its long bloody history. The status of Jerusalem is still not definitively decided and remains a central issue in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The city is important for all three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Situated 800m above sea level, Jerusalem is generally cooler than other cities in Israel, but on this blazing summer day it didn’t make much difference. The tour bus stopped at a spot on the Mount of Olives where a great panoramic view of the Old City could be seen. I quickly realised this was an ancient city, where many buildings date back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Other cities in Israel, like Tel Aviv and Haifa, are not so old; they are relatively new in comparison, resembling cities in the West with their modern high-rise flats and offices, highways and pavements.

Staring straight in front of me was the Dome of the Rock, with its distinctive golden dome. The tour guide pointed to specific sites relating to the final days of Jesus on earth, and I was surprised to see that they were all enclosed within a relatively small area. Along the sides of the Mount of Olives were thousands of Jewish tombstones. From biblical times, Jews have been buried on the Mount of Olives. You have to be extremely rich to be buried here today because of land prices.

We visited the Garden of Gethsemane, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus was betrayed by one of his disciples – Judas - and arrested by the Temple guards. Here there are some very old olive trees still standing. Next to the garden is the Church of All Nations – a Roman Catholic church – built between 1919 and 1924 using funds from many different countries. The church is situated on the location where Jesus prayed all night in anticipation of his arrest and subsequent death. A mass was getting underway when I visited the church.

Next stop was Mount Zion on the outskirts of the Old City. There I bought a big Australian straw hat to protect my face from the powerful rays of the sun and a bottle of cool mineral water. We visited the room where Jesus had his last supper, located near the tomb of David. Actually it wasn’t exactly the same room where Jesus had his last supper because the architectural elements indicated that the room was built by the Crusaders in the twelfth century, but it is presumed to be on or near the place where the Last Supper took place.

The Old City, barely one square km in area, is divided into four quarters: the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, and the Christian Quarter. We entered the Old City via Zion Gate, which leads to the south side of the Armenian Quarter. The Armenian Quarter is the smallest in size and inhabitants of all the quarters, although the quarter had its beginnings in the fourth century A.D. when a small group of Armenian monks and pilgrims settled in the area. The Armenian Quarter is closed to the public, so we headed to the Jewish Quarter.

The main feature of the Jewish Quarter is the Wailing Wall, which is all that remains of the Second Temple - built by Herod the Great - after it was destroyed by the Romans in the Jewish Revolt around 70 AD. Following the revolt, Jews were not allowed into Jerusalem until the Byzantine period, when they could visit once a year on the anniversary of the destruction of the temple and weep over its ruins. Hence the name “Wailing Wall”. Later, when the Muslims conquered Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock was built over the Temple Mount. It was only after the Six Day War in 1967, between the newly formed state of Israel and Arab countries, that the Jewish people once again regained control of what remained of their temple.

To get to the Wailing Wall, security is tight. All bags are x-rayed and each person has to walk past a metal detector. Photography is not allowed in front of the wall. I followed the rest of my tour party and, touching the wall, I prayed for my own intentions. I was surprised that on the Jewish Sabbath the wall was not crowded with worshippers. I discovered later that Jews prefer to go to air-conditioned synagogues near their places of residence rather than stand in the searing heat in front of the wall and pray. Nevertheless, the Wailing Wall is the holiest of shrines for the Jews.

Standing over the top of the Wailing Wall is the Dome of the Rock, built on the Temple Mount, which is an impressive piece of Islamic architecture. With its exterior of pure gold the Dome stands out against a largely white and grey Jerusalem skyline. It was built between 685 and 691 AD by Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, from Mecca, who captured Jerusalem from the Byzantines. In 1998 the late King of Jordan sold one of his houses in London to fund the 80kg of gold required for refurbishing the Dome. According to Islamic tradition, the sacred rock over which the Dome is built is the place from which Muhammad ascended to heaven accompanied by the angel Gabriel.

I couldn’t help feeling that the position of the Dome, over the site of their old holy temple, must have caused some resentment among the Jews over the years. Sovereignty over the site remains a key issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in Israel there is already talk of building the third and final temple. My tour guide informed us that the Dome is not open to non-Muslims, and so we headed to the Muslim Quarter to wander through its streets.

The narrow, crowded streets of the Muslim Quarter were lined with small shops owned by Palestinians, selling a variety of items including souvenirs, food, clothes, carpets and household wares. This quarter was teeming with life. I passed veiled Arab women busy shopping, keffiyeh-clad elderly men chatting, and young boys in jeans playing with one another. We stopped at one diner to eat some falafel, a common food in the Middle East, made from fried balls of chickpeas. Then we headed for the Christian Quarter.

We followed the Stations of the Cross, the last few places Jesus visited before being crucified and buried. I found re-tracing his last footsteps a very moving experience as I could imagine Jesus struggling to walk up these winding roads with the cross, in hypovolemic shock, following the brutal flogging he received on the previous day. The cruelness of it all became so much more real to me, which was a reminder of how wicked man can be. There were inscriptions on the walls to signify different Stations of the Cross.

After stopping at a particular shop to purchase souvenir items, we proceeded to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – one of the holiest shrines in Christendom - which is the location of the last five Stations of the Cross including the site of the crucifixion and tomb of Jesus. Initially built by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine I in 330 AD, it was later destroyed by invading Persians and then Muslims, but eventually rebuilt by the Crusaders. The main custodians of the church are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic and Roman Catholic churches, with the Greeks having the lion's share. The Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox own smaller sections within the church. The fractious nature of Christian denominations was very much in evidence here.

From the brilliant sunshine outside, I stepped inside a dimly lit church and turned to my right. I followed people up the Stairway to Golgotha. Beautiful murals and shrines, each owned by a particular denomination, marked important locations within the church. I visited the site of the crucifixion where an ornate Greek Orthodox altar commemorates the place. There were many visitors around this altar, taking photographs and remembering Jesus as he suffered a slow, agonizing death on the cross. Returning to the ground floor, near the entrance, I touched the Stone of the Anointing where Jesus’ body was laid and prepared for burial after being removed from the cross. Like other people, I put my souvenirs on the stone to get them blessed.

Moving to the other side of the church – to the left of the church entrance - was the sepulchre or tomb of Jesus Christ. A large, hollow monument encloses the original tomb. No one knows for sure whether this was the actual tomb of Jesus but what is beyond doubt is that the presence of other tombs, such as the “Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea”, shows that the area was used for burials during the 1st century AD. There were many pilgrims queuing up to go inside and see the tomb but, as my tour involved visiting other places, I had to move on.

We left the Old City via Jaffa Gate and headed back to our tour bus. Sitting down in my seat in the air-conditioned bus was a welcome respite after all the walking, and I felt hungry. The bus pulled away and headed to Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea. From Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains the bus descended more than 1km along a winding, sloping road to the depths of the Judean Desert, where Satan tempted Jesus for forty days and forty nights. The change in scenery from the moderately green mountains of Jerusalem to the parched, barren landscape of the desert, in a fairly short space of time, was quite dramatic.

Soon we were in Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered more than half a century ago. We stopped at a tourist centre where we satisfied our hunger with a hearty lunch. Then the bus drove us to the Dead Sea, about one mile away. I had reached the lowest point on earth, 400m below sea level. The temperature was at least 40°C.

The Dead Sea is unique in that it has a very high salt content of 30%, which means that the water is unusually dense, making it possible for human beings to float on the surface. With the rest of my tour group, I changed into swimming trunks and went into the water. Soon I was lying on my back, effortlessly floating on the water. It was an amazing experience and great fun. The water had a dark green complexion and it felt oily. I learnt that the surface level is decreasing at a rate of 1m per year, although there are plans are to build a canal from the Red Sea to replenish the receding water in the Dead Sea and desalinate it for human use.

I stayed in the water for fifteen minutes, and then after climbing out I washed myself with clean fresh water from a pipe. Soon I was on the road again, travelling northward along the Jordan Valley, on the border between the West Bank and Jordan. We passed the area where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist. As we passed the biblical city of Jericho I noticed a greenness to this area, near the River Jordan, that contrasted with the desolate terrain of the Judean Desert. I passed by many plantations of palm trees, banana and other fruit.

As the tour bus headed back to Haifa, I quietly reflected on my visit to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. I had fulfilled a long personal ambition to visit Jerusalem, to see the places mentioned in the bible and experience the atmosphere. Although things have got a little commercialised in recent times, there is no mistaking the sense of history when one stands in this great, ancient city. Jerusalem has a timeless quality about it that I have not felt in any other city.

I did get the feeling that because of the proximity of the different communities that live in Jerusalem, particularly the Jews and Muslims, and the importance of the place to each community, there is always the possibility that anything that upsets their sensibilities could flare up into something explosive quite quickly. Indeed, that was one of my main fears before my trip. I discovered that there is enough security around to handle with such situations should they arise.

Seeing the Garden of Gethsemane, the Last Supper Room and other Stations of the Cross, the bible literally came alive before my eyes. Re-tracing Jesus’ last steps was a moving experience which I will never forget. To cap it all, I had a dip in the Dead Sea. I would like to come again sometime, if possible, and spend more time in Jerusalem. I would like to visit some of the other churches and sacred relics. Next time I would like to bring my family with me. For now, at least, I am thankful for having been able to see Jerusalem and I will cherish my memories of it for a long time.