"We keep getting thrown Air India at us. We can't inhibit the growth of Air India. In 1960, the first jet aircraft that I flew was Air India's. It was a full carrier then. But where is it now? It always had opportunities like all of us had. It had the opportunity to engage its market. When you think about it, you've had an enormous opportunity. Why didn't they take it?" Clark told ET in an exclusive interview at the 69th annual general meeting of IATA at Cape Town.
Clark's comments come in the backdrop of recent government data, which shows how Dubai-based Emirates has the largest market share of Indian passengers flying to overseas destinations at 13.04%, more than Air India. A report on Air India by the national auditor CAG in 2011 blamed the civil aviation ministry for giving windfall traffic rights (54,000 seats per week) to Emirates readily, causing Air India to lose out on traffic. However, Clark rubbished these charges questioning why is Air India where it is today. "It should be the largest carrier on the planet. If Emirates could be 200-aircraft strong, why couldn't Air India be that? It should've been that 25 years ago when I came to the country in 1975, Air India was there. But it's not much different... Air India is not making money, is that our fault?"
Another cause of concern for Indian airlines and airports recently has been the grant of similar access to another Gulf carrier Etihad, which signed an equity partnership with Jet Airways in April.
Arguing that Emirates' requests for increasing traffic rights into India predates Etihad's by years, Clark thinks that granting more access to Etihad will not take away anyone's chances as India was like a "big cake which is growing all the time and at least three quarters of that cake is uneaten." However, he did admit that Etihad's increased access into India "compromises" his India plans.
"Of course it compromises whatever we thought we would do with our Indian operations in this point in time. We would have more seats," he said.
When asked if he would too like to partner an Indian airline to live up to the competition Etihad has thrown, Clark said he can "never say never" and that he once even looked at Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways, but is not in favour of an equity partnership.
"We could have done that (partnered some Indian carrier) a long time ago. We could have partnered Kingfisher or Naresh Goyal. He would've said yes. They always wanted to do something with us. But I honestly believe if the business model is strong enough and you do your job properly you don't need partners in terms of equity," he said.