Air Mauritius’ Black Thursday

Neither Air Mauritius’ corporate governance nor the country’s ruling politburo can afford not to draw the lessons from a very costly black Thursday

Air Mauritius, celebrating its 50 years, is just about one year older than the country it serves. From what we gather about its operational history, it took ten years to grow out of infancy, the first five of which concentrated on mastering ground-only operations, then regional Navajo runs and long-distance flights operated on its behalf by its major shareholders (Air India, Air France & British Airways). It was not until 1st November 1977 that it could proudly and successfully purchase a second-hand Boeing 707 from British Airtours and embark, however modestly, on autonomous, self-operated long-distance flights and associated services. A milestone event which should have been on the cards for joyful and emotional celebration in a few weeks’ time.

With the pick-up of economic perspectives and the development of one of its key pillars, tourism, Air Mauritius (MK) flew steadily to new heights during the eighties. Its fortunes were intimately linked with the growth of tourism and MK, successfully using a code-share strategy with competitors, feathered its nest with acumen. Another ten years later, by 1987-1988, the size of the Boeing-ATR fleet, the absence of serious security instances, the variety of destinations and the frequency of both regional and international flights and services had transformed MK into somewhat more than a modest African flight provider, certainly far more than what could be expected from the island’s small size and distance from European markets.

It is worth noting that this steady upward trajectory took place despite, some might say, a restructuring that had brought Government in as a major shareholder at around 42%, transforming MK into a really national airline, with all the associated perils, risks and constraints. Country and airport destinations, for instance, became entwined with government policy or diplomatic overtures, ministers and advisors at times may have given the impression they knew better the national carrier’s development strategy. Appointments and promotions have probably felt the weight of all political masters, while parliamentary questions on MK as a private company, unless compelling, could be generally stepped aside by any government in office.

But overall, against the stacked odds, an implicit modus vivendi seems to have established itself over the years. The underlying sense of pride and patriotism of the population, the dedication of mostly courteous and professional MK staff, a savvy directorate and the recognition by body politic of how far not to drive the company down under, helped MK escape the fate that could have so easily trapped a fledgling bird. Nobody could afford that the Paille-en-Queue turn into a dodo.

But it did survive quite a few scares, some immensely turbulent, like the notorious “carnet la boutique” affair which saw the end of Sir Harry Tirvengadum’s long reign at the helm of MK. In the mid-nineties, it successfully navigated the strategic conversion of its fleet operations and services from Boeing to Airbus, becoming even the first southern hemisphere carrier to operate the new generation A340. At times government had to strike uneasy trade-offs in capacity or destination planning between MK’s interests and the hoteliers’ demands. CEOs and Boards changed with the ebb and flow of political parties in power but somehow, with the impact on our tourism sector at stake, successive governments kept their too blatant temptations under check and MK kept the worst at bay, hanging on to that indefinable resilience of a parakeet as it soared even higher in the nineties and during most of this millennium.

A deeper understanding of our national interests meant we had no alternative to the strengths of collective effort, the wisdom of collaboration and dialogue and the imperious necessity of professionalism at all levels. Maintaining MK’s international reputation, a track-record of minimal flight and ground incidents and the ability to recruit highly skilled and operationally fit staff were all interlinked in a virtuous circle. MK is a strategic national property that has amassed a considerable asset in expertise and goodwill that continues to play a key supportive role for inbound tourism and today for outbound Mauritian travellers.

So it is understandable that the series of events that have unfolded at Air Mauritius since 2015 are being watched with considerable unease in many concerned quarters. The cursory eviction of smooth and experienced CEO Megh Pillay, undermined in circumstances we know by a controversial political nominee, a blue-eyed boy who seems to wield unparalleled authority and mandate over HR, has definitely altered the MK internal management scene, and it could well be over-riding any system of checks and balances in place. Specially if strategic, policy and HR decision-making have become the preserve of a small circle of Executives and political Board appointees, with which the newly recruited CEO Somas Appavoo has had either to make do or, more appropriately, to fit in.

Last Thursday’s unprecedented actions by a small group of pilots out of a pool of 200, whether concerted and however damaging, could reflect that traditional values of dialogue, consultations and cooperation around work conditions of professional staff have taken a beating at MK and, as in all deteriorating or seriously degraded HR relations, both parties hold a share of the blame. If top management has indeed and consistently turned a deaf ear to pilots’ grievances, their state of mind and their mental, emotional or physical fatigue levels as they take charge of each flight, we must all be seriously concerned at the shenanigans inside Paille-en-Queue court. They have already had their toll on MK’s international repute and standing. To cap it, both crisis management and contingency planning were woefully inadequate causing tremendous stress to passengers and distraught MK staff.

We will abstain from lengthy comments, but it is quite simply a damaging admission of multiple level communication and management failures at MK that elder professionals and pilots have had to intervene as well-meaning go-betweens. In a crisis of this magnitude, MK cannot afford either over-inflated or bruised egos to get in the way of a constructive approach to short-term conflict resolution while imposing a radically improved state of future HR relations. And, as a side issue, CEO Appavoo will have to ask himself if he was ambushed by stressed-out pilots or pushed into a hardline lose-lose stance that could be serving other agendas.

Neither MK’s corporate governance nor the country’s ruling politburo can afford not to draw the lessons from a very costly black Thursday. But can a government which has lost its bite, lurching from one “affair” to another, week after dispiriting week, unable, despite a commanding seat majority in the national Assembly, to stamp out its own worst elements, its offenders and its serial gaffers, really give credence to its bark?

 

*  Published in print edition on 13 October 2017

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