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Bumpy Rides And Hard Landings

Bumpy Rides And Hard Landings

July 10, 2012

A classic Chicken-and-Egg story. What came first – demise of the Class that was once Air Travel, or rise of the ‘Unlettered’ Air Traveller?

In the past few months, I happened to catch a few episodes of a new American TV show called ‘Pan Am’. It is a fictional account of the glorious lives of a group of airline crew members working for the erstwhile vanguard of the aviation industry, and its equally splendid passengers. The backdrop of the show is the 60s, which can probably be best described as the teenage years of the modern world – they were formative, defiant, ground-breaking and course-changing. Even our very own Air India, with its uber-stylish calendars, its top-rated haute cuisine and distinct livery, was considered avant-garde at the time.

To travel by air in the 60s was to make a style statement no different from what one would today by being seen at the most snobbish new club or lounge in Delhi or Mumbai. The company you’ll keep would be just as exclusive, and the price you’ll pay just as prohibitive. One wonders if the choice made by Air India at the time to use the ‘Maharaja’ as its symbol was not as much that you got treated like one, but that you had to be one to fly it!

Now propel yourself to the reality of today. Our airports have got better, but everything else, especially on domestic travel, slips a few notches every day.

I have had two recent travel experiences with Kingfisher Airlines, whose once happy memories and “good times” have now plunged into a vortex of wretchedness and torment, taking with them my treasure trove of tens of thousands of unused airline miles. The first was a Bangalore-Delhi flight, around the time when whispers of Kingfisher’s eminent downfall were still whispers albeit loud, and Simi Garewal was still proclaiming Sidhartha Mallaya as India’s Most Desirable. The visual display at the Bangalore airport showed that of the eight scheduled flights out that evening, six were canceled, one was on time, and mine was delayed. Once onboard, one was quick to observe the threadbare carpet, torn seat backrests and a general sense of dishevelment. When the lovely Yana Gupta came alive to make the mandatory safety announcements, she did so for only about half the audience. For the rest, including me, the TV screens were on the blink. Presumably, I was just expected to visualize the “safety features of this aircraft” based on what I was hearing on the PA. And pray that in case of an emergency, my fellow passenger, whose TV screen was working, would think of helping me first before putting on his own oxygen mask. In terms of service, gone were the days of decent meals, an attentive and ever smiling crew and all round promptness. That would have been too much to expect of folks who had not been paid for months, despite personal assurances from King Mallaya himself. And so, expectedly, there was ample yelling by the Fatigued Frequent Fliers and Tired Mothers With Wailing Babies.

On a more recent Delhi-Shimla flight, there was no option but to fly on a scary little Kingfisher plane. The captain announcement left a mildly unnerving feeling – “that sounded like a child” – especially considering that the Shimla table-top airport landing is probably not the most facile. Mid-flight, the captain decided to use the washroom at the back of the tiny plane, heralding the fact that airline companies were now confidently letting 24 year old children fly their planes, including the ones that involved Himalayan landings!

Despite the fact that golden crutches worth Rs.42,000 crores appear to do little for Air India from continuing to stagger, I still have a special corner for this airline. Sure, the interiors look dank and far from spotless, the seatbacks are always unkempt, with newspapers and other reading material clumsily thrust into back pockets. Still, who wouldn’t feel reassured by flight attendants who look like confident, no-nonsense ladies that smile only when there is reason? And an employee-aircraft ratio of 263 (as opposed to 180 at British Airways) can only mean that there are plenty of folks attending to your plane, making the likelihood of yours dropping from the sky because of a missing nut to almost zero. Perks include legendary leg space, and inflight entertainment has enough choice as long as your numerical vocabulary is that of a 3-year old, your favourite cinema is from the 60s, and TV means Doordarshan skits. Interestingly, service matches expectation, this being a zero sum game. To everyone who is flying for the first time, I recommend Air India – it is so…uncomplicated. (Provided, of course, that your pilot show up for work, but that’s a topic I will discuss another day)

A side-note : On a reasonably un-crowded Air India flight from Delhi to Mumbai a couple of years ago, after I had finished self-congratulating myself at choosing this less popular airline and, thus, having the entire 3-seater to myself, I noticed a candy-wrapper tucked between the interior and exterior panes of my seat window. Alarmed at the air unworthiness of the plane – “there is a hole in this window!”, I summoned the flight attendant, who looked at the wrapper, then at me, and very calmly said – “Don’t worry. It is safe”. And I did feel reassured because, somehow, you want this kind of consolation to come from a warm, motherly 50-year-old lady.

So, the majestic days of 60s-style air travel are probably gone for good. And as the “class” boundaries between Indians dissipate, as we get richer, busier and, supposedly, wiser, we appear to be descending into an unhealthy morass of Apathetic Frumps. We have all started to look, and sound, and behave the same. How would Today’s Passenger – loud and abrasive, dressed in shapeless clothes and sneakers, carrying a laptop knapsack, perpetually looking for a bargain, and yet with a massive misplaced ego – have gelled in the refined style of air travel of the 60s? Going by the result of the experiment of a certain liquor baron, who tried to bring in the 60s flair into the aughts, no better than a cipher! 


  • Britul
    20.07.12 11:32 AM
    nice post ... enjoyed reading ... :-D
  • Maheesh Singh
    Maheesh Singh
    14.07.12 07:52 AM
  • Rajpriya
    11.07.12 12:26 AM
    Most certainly the formative years are now a distant memory. Remember taking a few flights by Indians Airlines as a kid. Forced down on the seat with belts for take off and landing was depriving childhood. Whatever happened to IAC?

    Grand old lady Simi Garewal should rename her show to “India’s Most Undesirable”.

    Thinking of it, even all the best International Airlines have dropped many notches below their former standards blaming it all on the rising oil prices. Nevertheless charge a higher price and give less of everything thereafter.

    Sahara India Pariwar was heard saying, “India is reaching new heights by joining Kingfisher and Force India the expensive Grand Prix connection. The unpaid staff can really be proud they reach new heights with out having to pay.

    It should be ok if 24-year-old kids are allowed to take your destiny in their hands but it would be some consolation if they remember to take “How Stuff Work” information along in case.

    Grin and bear Rickie and I know that’s the best you could do. My own experience as a frequent flyer and the EK Gold card is still not bad. Thanks for making me laugh once again.
    10.07.12 11:23 PM
    @ Rickie

    What do you expect from airline that operates on shoe string budget. The days you are talking about are gone in 60's and 70's. I think you are still lucky to have a 24 years old child flying a plane, because the kind of wage they pay now, you wont even get a bus driver doing that job. I have been told that Indigo is good for it's money and good looking girls as well. :) Happy days.

    I will tell you a joke, so here it goes :- Do you know why they tell you to put your head down in time of emergency on airplane,..... So you can kiss your arse goodbye. :)

  • Rickie Khosla
    Rickie Khosla
    10.07.12 06:57 PM
    Thanks a lot for reading, Jyoti!
    Ah, the meal story. I usually try to get a seat at the back of the plane because it is always less crowded there. But the price I sometimes have to pay is to not get my meal choice. I think I "adjust" too often. :)
  • Jyoti Agarwal
    Jyoti Agarwal
    10.07.12 06:37 PM
    Kingfisher... name it and people will start pouring in their horrible experiences. On my flight back from London, the air hostess came to me and my husband and asked us (strictly vegetarian) to adjust with non-vegetarian meals since they had a shortage of veg meals. On refusing to eat, she finally brought a plate and said - "Mam this is my food, please have it . Customer is our first priority"

    Needless to say, there was a lot of arguments but I don't think that is going to change anything with Airlines.

    Overall a great piece of satire. Loved your writing.
  • Rickie Khosla
    Rickie Khosla
    10.07.12 02:55 PM
    Hi Deepa,
    Thanks for writing!
    That does sound like a nasty experience on AI. In my experience, when things are "normal", AI does very well. But when anything happens that is off the beaten track, things go completely haywire because, as it is with every government entity in our country, there is simply no concept of accountability or penalty.
    They will pump in all that money into AI because of the TINA factor. In good days, the airlines will work fine. In all other times, it will lurch from one crisis to the other.
  • Deepa
    10.07.12 11:12 AM
    Firstly, enjoyed the sarcasm and humour that you've laced in your article. Couldn't help but chuckle at the reference to the sense of consoling by the warm, motherly 50 year old.

    Rickie, I would like to know your thoughts on the government's idea of bailing out AI? For an airline that suffers perpetual losses and cries Strike at the drop of a hat, do you think that's a wise decision? AI pilots have held the country ransom many times but we still continue to bail them out - with tax payers money. Is that justified?

    During one such travel to the US, our flight was supposed to take off at 1 AM or so. With dozens of people still waiting in life before and after us, The night shift bid adieu to us at around 11 PM refusing to answer questions about when the next shift would start. It didn't until 4 AM. Our flight finally took off close to 6 AM. Who can I blame? Is there anybody who can be held accountable for such crimes (it is a crime isn't it?) or do we just throw up our hands in the air and accept whatever is meted out to us?

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