We don’t write stories about individuals that often. But heading Air India is some high profile stuff, no? So in today’s Finshots, we’re going to tell you all that you need to know about Mehmet Ilker Ayci, the man who almost became Air India’s CEO.

The Story

It’s February 2022. After an intense hunt over many months, the now Tata-owned Air India has narrowed down on a CEO. His name is Mehmet Ilker Ayci. And everyone feels that he is the right man for the job — To help the Maharajah regain its former glory.

But then only a month later, celebrations are cut short as Ayci makes a big announcement. He’s turning down the prestigious job offer. And wait…he blames it on the Indian media saying, “Since the announcement, I have been carefully following news in some sections of the Indian media attempting to color my appointment with undesirable colors.”

Okay, what on earth is going on here?

Well, to understand this, we first need to understand who Ayci is. Or who he “really” is.

Let’s start with his profile. How experienced was this chap?

Well, Ayci was the top man at Turkish Airlines, Turkey’s national carrier, since 2015. And he steered the company through some rough waters.

In 2016, barely a year into his job, Ayci had to deal with a terrorist attack that killed 40 people. It happened at Istanbul airport. Suddenly there was intense scrutiny regarding Turkey’s place in the civilian airline ecosystem. They were the connecting hub for North America, Asia, Europe and Africa. And yet no one wanted to risk flying through the country.

During this time, Turkish Airlines had its worst quarter in 17 years.

But that didn’t really deter Ayci. He went on the offensive. He expanded the fleet. Added more international routes. He improved connectivity to regions that were once ignored. Soon, Turkish Airlines began servicing a whopping 122 countries — the most by any airline. And they  were profitable too. After posting a loss in 2016, Turkish Airlines reported 3 straight years of increasing profits.

But soon, Ayci would have to deal with another problem — pandemic. For an airline that generated 90% of its revenues on international routes, this was a massive blow. They reported a loss once again in 2020 — $836 million. However, Ayci wasn’t deterred. He doubled down on the cargo business and helped the airline navigate the crisis once again. They even posted a handsome profit of about $722 million in the third quarter of 2021.

In the meantime, he did not fire his staff. He didn’t seek a government bailout. He just went about his job. Obviously, the shareholders were extremely pleased. In the last 7 years, the airline’s stock has jumped by 200%. In comparison, Singapore Airlines lost 40% of its value during this period

So you can see why Tata chose Ayci.

But here’s where things get a little murky.

Ayci also has close ties with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In fact, when Erdoğan was the mayor of Istanbul in 1994, Ayci served as his advisor. Now you might go — “So, what? Don’t most CEOs have some sort of a connection with their country’s politicians?”

That’s true. But the problem here is Erdoğan. He has a very intimate relationship with our neighbour, Pakistan and has on many occasions raised the contentious topic of Kashmir’s “liberation.” Obviously, he isn’t in India’s good books. And when Ayci’s announcements were made public, certain sections of the media were livid. They wanted to know how the Tata group missed these obvious red flags. They worried if this could potentially compromise national security. And with all the chatter going around, it seems Ayci decided to back off himself.

But it’s a little hard to imagine that Tata’s missed all this during a background check, no?

Well, it is. But there is a simple explanation here. No one probably imagined that this would snowball into such a big issue. In fact, the Indian Express reported that Tata’s only made the news public after being certain that regulatory matters wouldn’t be a concern, including a security clearance from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In all likelihood, they were probably very willing to hire Ayci. However, when faced with intense scrutiny from sections of the media including political outfits close to the ruling party, they had to reconsider their decision perhaps.

And this kind of thing isn’t just affecting Air India.

Take Momentus for instance. In 2021, the $1.2 billion space transportation start-up parted ways with its CEO Mikhail Kokorich. The problem? Kokorich was Russian. And US officials were deeply concerned about his nationality. In the end, the company had to throw out Mikhail, who also happened to be the co-founder of Momentus.

So yeah, in Tata’s books, Ayci might have been the right man for Air India. But geopolitics can always scuttle matters.

Until next time…

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