While Jet Airways or Air India did not voluntarily cancel their flights en masse, Kingfisher seems to be doing it routinely. But what routes the hatred towards Kingfisher's brand ambassador, Dr Mallya himself?
With no wind beneath his wings, Dr Vijay Mallya is grounded. The more things worsen, the more menacing his critics look. Which makes us wonder, what is it about the "King of Good Times" that inspires this rage?
It is not that other airlines have not faced trouble. Even Jet Airways or Air India did not voluntarily cancel their flights en masse, which Kingfisher seems to be doing. This has angered the passengers. But what routes that hatred towards the brand ambassador, Dr Mallya himself?
Vijay Mallya took up the mantle of "the airline's host" on the behalf of the industry.
Kingfisher was projected as an airline which would provide first class service at low cost rate. So initially, food was served, television was available in-flight, and of course, there were the air hostesses. But after some years, as aviation turbine fuel (ATF) dues and debts started to pinch, all these services were withdrawn. The King of Good Times was losing his sheen.
"When you are in the public sphere, you can either keep a low profile or a high profile. And when you keep a high profile, be ready to face the flak" says V Shantakumar, a veteran adman and former CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi in India. "Mallya put his personal stamp all over it. People expected more from him and this brand that he personified. Now, they blame him and his lifestyle for the sorry state of affairs."
One might remember the Kingfisher Airline's promos, which used to be aired frequently half a decade ago, soon after its operations started. Dr Vijay Mallya appeared in a polished black suit and personally welcomed everyone to his airline. He then went on to say that he "personally selects" the staff; and that he has taught them "to show the passengers the same hospitality that they would be offered as if they are in my own home". You can watch the commercial here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMvtLKJmCmM
Dr Mallya's role model was Virgin Group's self-made but larger-than-life head, Richard Branson-who acted as the brand ambassador for his own company. Dr Mallya wanted to be him, and wanted his company to become Virgin. Kingfisher attempted to shine across diverse circuits, like Virgin had done with panache. Kingfisher Airline's staff got a red uniform-remarkably similar to Virgin's; and Dr Mallya got himself a haircut like his idol. Mimicking Virgin's versatility, Kingfisher entered diverse ventures. Unfortunately, Kingfisher was ill-equipped to carry the burden of Virgin's signature flamboyance.
Dr Mallya's idea of "personal selection" worked out-ample number of flyers will vouch that Kingfisher Airline has the prettiest air hostesses. Then there are the Kingfisher calendar girls. A least of half of India's population would agree that Dr Mallya (and his son) has good taste and overwhelming good fortune.
But Kingfisher's noble proclamations on hospitality have now become the subject of many jokes. As flights continue to be grounded and reports flow in of actress Ayesha Takia's Twitter war against Kingfisher; whose ground staff allegedly tore off her sister's boarding pass, people now ask, is this the way Dr Mallya treats his guests at home?
Public perception is a complex phenomenon. Every company, organisation or brand finds a poster boy-and when it fails; his image takes the maximum beating. Our very own prime minister is a fitting example, who has come to symbolise inaction and corruption; despite many people thinking that personally, he is an honest man.
"It is not that other airlines are without troubles," said an advertising veteran, "Most airlines are making losses and they are yet to repay loans. The problem with Kingfisher is that Dr Mallya himself made it personal. And then there were repeated blunders-defiant comments about bank bailouts, continuous grounding of flights that angered passengers, and now Dr Mallya is blaming income tax department for his troubles. And amidst everything, Dr Mallya and Kingfisher continue to flaunt themselves. It is very easy for the issue to turn personal in such a situation-because as a subject; isn't a failed personality more dramatic than a failed organisation?"
Even when the airline ran into trouble, the in-your-face flamboyance continued-the IPL franchise, Formula1 team and other luxurious ventures. The reek of money displeased some, but things worsened because the spheres where Dr Mallya had started to get involved ran into controversies. And Mallya's junior's deriding of Ms Takia's complaint did not help matters.
The bubble burst in 2011. Moreover, with the nation still seething over rampant corruption and the tremendous loss the scams caused to the airlines, talks of banks bailing out a loss-making private enterprise; owned by a Rajya Sabha member; with public money sparked an outrage. Rahul Bajaj's famous comment made headlines. Dr Mallya however, put up a defiant face and argued how the bank bailout would not use public funds.
Dr Mallya and his beloved airline now have become a staple for Internet jokes. In Twitter, someone said, "Mallya was going to clear the air in New Delhi. But his flight got cancelled." The focus, even now, seems to be more on Dr Mallya than the workings of Kingfisher Airline.
It remains to be seen what awaits the troubled airline. Meanwhile, a Facebook user has a tip: "His drinks were with you when you were needed them. Now, drink more and support Vijay Mallya when he needs you."