Crumbling seats, broken arm rests, dysfunctional seat-back entertainment screens on Air India’s aircraft often make the airline a subject of passenger ire but a massive repair and revamp exercise is afoot under which 40% seats across its widebody and narrowbody planes have already been repaired since the Tata take-over last January.
$400 million for retrofit
The airline has also committed over $400 million for brand-new interiors for its entire legacy widebody fleet comprising 27 Boeing 787-8s and 13 Boeing 777 aircraft.
The retrofit will comprise new seats, carpeting, upholstery and even the introduction of onboard Wi-Fi that will replace pre-loaded entertainment content that is currently available to passengers as well as the addition of a Premium Economy cabin. Some of these changes are being reviewed by Chairman Emeritus of Tata Sons, Ratan Tata, himself, who was present earlier this month to view seat options for the premium cabin product. The fund for refreshed interiors was announced last December, but the first revamped aircraft will enter service only mid next year because of the long-drawn regulatory procedure.
“The job has started, but there is a lot of lead time,” says Air India’s Chief Technical Officer, Sisira Kanta Dash, in an interview to The Hindu.
Engineering modifications to aircraft interiors are carried out only after obtaining approvals from Indian and foreign regulators as the refurbishment exercise can result in crucial changes to aircraft weight as well as electricals.
3D printing of spares
In the meantime, the airline is focused on repairing broken aircraft furniture. This too has its own set of challenges given that the average fleet size is 12 years, and the government had long stopped pumping in money as it had made up its mind to sell the airline to a private player.
“Say our seats are 12 years old. The manufacturer is not producing the same seats anymore and neither are spares available. Take for instance, reclination actuators. If they are not being manufactured the only solution is to repair them. But many vendors are not available to repair because even spares are not available,” explains Mr Dash. So, Tata Sons- owned Air India is now seeking help from another group entity, Tata Technologies, for 3-D printing of small spare parts to make seats serviceable.
He explains that since the Tatas bought the airline from the government in January 2022, as many as 40% seats on a total of 141 aircraft, comprising widebodies and narrowbodies, have been repaired. He also claims that 99% in-flight entertainment screens on business class and first class seats and 90% on economy seats have also been fixed. Recarpeting of all planes, barring two widebodies, has also been achieved.
However complaints still persist.
“If we have released an aircraft from here, when it returns we will find something not working. We try to ensure 100% serviceability for Business and First Class out of the base. That is the target, and we are more less able to achieve that.”
These works will continue alongside induction of new planes. Air India ordered 470 aircraft from Airbus and Boeing earlier this year. The widebodies arriving this year include six A350s. Air India is also adding 11 Boeing 777s on lease to its fleet.
And though passengers often invoke the “Tata magic” and demand better services while flying with Air India, in the words of airline CEO Campbell Wilson there is “no magic bullet” to the airline’s legacy issues. In his first media interaction last October, he told reporters, “the unfortunate reality is that with so many aircraft, and so many issues to be addressed, it’s not a magic bullet problem. It is a progressive attack at every problem, so we get better and better.”