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!