By qualification, profession(s) and practice, I am an engineer. My love for airplanes made me study everything technical about aviation, and hence the name, The Flying Engineer. I did get to practice a lot of it, and filed two US patents with a North American aerospace major before starting off on my own.
I never really liked studying airlines. Running an airline was something totally different from airplanes and technology. An airline with one aircraft could be profitable, and another airline with the same aircraft could be loss making. Unlike aircraft, an airline isn’t exact science. It’s a mix of forecasting science, luck, lots of funding, experimentation, government regulations, competition, glamour, God, and what not. It’s not exact, and can never be. I was, and largely still am allergic to things I cannot mathematically or logically explain.
Then came a transformation at SpiceJet. Suddenly, an ailing airline with tonnes of data had a new head. On November 1st, Sanjiv Kapoor boarded SpiceJet as COO. He pushed SpiceJet into an operation theatre and brought in surgeons like Kaneswaran Avili. It gave an opportunity to study an airline turnaround.
Sanjiv and his team spewed data. Now data is interesting, and more dependable than “we will do it”, “we can do it”, and “we did it”. Sanjiv talked of the “how” of things. That was a turning point in my interests.
He released a good amount of data on the airline’s performance. The airline even released fairly detailed reports (with lots of graphs). His western thinking gave food for thought and ‘growth’ to all those who sat, saw, heard, and reflected. His addiction on Twitter had nothing to do with selfies, or what he did. It was never about him. It was all about the airline : what the airline did, and how the airline did. He even took customer issues into his hands and resolved matters through his team. He is a man of “we”, not “I”.
For once, there was an Indian airline head who was active on social media, and spoke numbers. Now numbers for some of us give us kicks. His maturity, experience, and his emphasis on data was sufficient for me to believe that there are some who don’t hip shoot in the industry. Yet, not always was I in agreement with everything that was done, nor everything that was tweeted.
Following the developments at SpiceJet was my education about the industry. I am far from perfect, but I was lucky to have been guided, by circumstances and people. And thankful to SpiceJet for having conducted classes on airline economics for many of us. Lectured by Prof. Sanjiv, ofcourse.
I have consulted, briefly, for a few airlines, and had a chance to interview many airline heads. You’ll be surprised how very few heads are data and research driven, and even fewer process driven. IndiGo is largely data and process driven. They made sure it was in their blood from day one. Sanjiv, to the best of my very limited knowledge, attempted such a culture at SpiceJet.
He also opened up channels of communication at the airline, bringing in more transparency and clarity. His largely full service airline experience made him focus significantly on customer service. Under him, SpiceJet transformed into an airline that was neither machine-cold nor ‘hot and spicy’ – SpiceJet became perhaps the warmest airline in the country.
Towards mid 2014, one of the airplanes was stickered with the faces of six of the airline’s crew, becoming the first airline in India to fly the faces of its employees. The aircraft had SpiceJet’s tagline, “With all our heart”. In the last week of August 2015, the aircraft was stripped off its livery. Spicejet, many months earlier, had been re-branded as ‘Hot and Spicy’.
During his period, scientifically planned flash sales driven by Kaneswaran and Fares Kilpady helped sell seats that would have otherwise flown empty. It is a concept yet to be understood by many. Today, such sales have become an Indian industry norm. I was definitely not the only one who learnt from SpiceJet. The sales served two purposes – driving up unit revenues, and boosting cash flows. SpiceJet survived longer than it otherwise would have, had it not been for those sales. Salaries never stopped.
Not everyone though could appreciate what Sanjiv and his team did. At the end of the day, performance is real, and evaluation subjective.
From April 26th, 2015, Sanjiv’s Twitter handle ceased being “@SKapoorSpiceJet”. That one Twitter handle was revolutionary, educative and proactive. Exactly six months later, today, news broke of him stepping down. Thank you Sanjiv, and thank you, SpiceJet, for the turnaround and the education. It fuelled my hunger for math, numbers, equations, and logical reasoning. Your troubles educated us.
Indian aviation will miss you and your team.
With all my heart,
The Flying Engineer.