Ex- Turkish Airlines chairman, turns down the CEO role at Air India Ltd., citing political controversies

Ilker Ayci, the former Turkish Airlines chairman, has turned down the role of chief executive officer of Tata Group’s Air India citing political controversies. The new owners of freshly privatized Air India are faced with a new challenge of hunting for a new leader after Ayci declined to take the job before even taking charge. The move comes two weeks after Tata Sons announced the appointment of Ayci as the CEO and Managing Director of recently-privatized Air India.

What’s the reason?

Ilker Ayci said on Tuesday that the negative media coverage of his appointment made him conclude that it wouldn’t be a feasible decision to accept the role. The Tata group had made an official announcement on February 14 that Ayci would take over the position of Air India’s CEO and MD to kickstart the process of the carrier’s much-awaited revival. According to Ayci, the attempt to color his appointment with undesirable colors by news in some sections of the Indian media citing his previous political connections in Turkey prompted him to withdraw from his position.

The appointment of Ayci led to opposition in India due to his association with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an ally of Pakistan, and his link with an Al-Qaeda financier. According to reports, the economic wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) demanded background checks over Ayci. It urged the government not to give clearance to his appointment, flagging concerns about his links in Turkey where he was an advisor of Turkish President Recep from 1994 to 1998. The RSS-affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch opposed the newly appointed CEO and MD, calling it to be a matter of national security and that the role was subject to requisite regulatory approvals.

In response to widespread opposition from certain political corners, Ilker Ayci said in a statement that he prioritized the happiness and well-being of his family above anything else and decided to turn down the position in the shadow of the alleged narrative. He also expressed his gratefulness to the Tata Group and wished Air India and the Tata Group every success. However, he was supposed to take charge of Air India from April 1 with pending regulatory approval.

Brief background of Ilker Ayci

Mehment Ilker Ayci is a Turkish businessman who served as the the national flag carrier Turkish Airlines chairman from 2015 to 2022. Formerly, he worked as the advisor of then-mayor Erdogan in 1994, President of Prime Ministry Investment Support and Promotion Agency of Turkey in 2011, and the Chairman of World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies in 2014. Ayci has substantial experience in the airline industry by leading Turkish Airlines through COVID-19 to its current success during his tenure there.

Recognizing his efforts and more than 25 years of dedication to the aviation industry with energetic spirit and contributions, Airline Passenger Experience Association awarded the CEO Lifetime Achievement Award to Ilker Ayci, becoming the first European aviation leader in receiving it.

Under his leadership, Turkish Airlines advanced incredibly in health safety, service, and sustainability with one of the youngest fleets in the world, posting a profit amid devastating coronavirus pandemic and moving to a new hub in Istanbul, which is set to be the world’s largest airport once completed.

Tata’s quest for Air India’s leader

Although the former British Airways CEO Alex Cruz was speculated to land a top job as Air India CEO, Tata Group welcomed Ilker Ayci to lead Air India into the new era and make it one of the best airlines in the world with a uniquely superior flying experience that reflected Indian warmth and hospitality.

Ayci’s decision to decline the CEO offer comes as a setback for Tata Group which will have to go for an industry expert again to lead Air India’s loss-making. Even before the Tata Sons took over Air India in January, the conglomerate had commenced the quest for the airline’s CEO. Filling the CEO position is vital to inaugurate the new chapter of the airline crippling with an aging airplane fleet, piling debt, and several legacy issues arising from its employees’ union.

About Air India

The flag carrier of India, Air India, is an airline-owned by salt-to-software conglomerate Tata Group launched in 1932 as the nation’s first carrier. After more than two decades and three attempts to keep the loss-making airline afloat, the government finally offloaded Air India onto the Tata Group. The coming days will show who will be chairing the once-national pride Air India.

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