Watchout: How Indigo might have lost a fanboy

I prefer IndiGo over other Indian domestic airlines and if you go through my social media history, you might even be right in saying I am a bit of an IndiGo fanboy. I believe there's good reason to admire IndiGo, a low cost carrier (LCC) which in a little more than six years from inception is now the largest domestic airline in India. In a country where IST is jokingly referred to as Indian Stretchable Time, IndiGo thanks to its single-minded focus on punctuality has made it IndiGo Standard Time.

I'd even go as far as to say that Indian fliers (especially business fliers like me) prefer IndiGo not just for on-time performance and squeaky clean aircraft, but also superb on-board service, which in my opinion beats even the supposedly full-service Jet Airways, leave alone other LCCs.

But as IndiGo expands rapidly and gobbles up market share, it will be an uphill task for the airline to keep up this image. As many of my friends at Jet Airways told me when I wrote that article on Jet Airways and IndiGo, and continue to remind me whenever I praise IndiGo on social media, the bubble would burst as IndiGo aircraft get older and a small, agile player became a large market leader.

As IndiGo expands rapidly and gobbles up market share, it will be an uphill task for the airline to keep up this image

After an experience last week, I'm reluctantly left wondering if they were right after all. Not based on service issues, but processes--most of them which should be fairly basic for an established airline-but which inexplicably, simply fell apart at the seam during a crisis.

I was booked on 6E 212 flying from Mumbai to Bangalore on 4 September. Just as I was about to reach the airport I got a text message telling me the flight was delayed by 30 minutes. Incredibly, this was the first time in the many IndiGo flights I've flown over years that a flight was delayed. After check-in, the delay was extended to 45 minutes. Which meant a 1:45 PM flight would now depart at 2:30 PM. However, well past 2:30 PM, there was no boarding announcement and in fact there was complete silence. Around 14:45 IndiGo announced the departure of the next flight to Bangalore 6E 423, which now upset fliers from 6E 212 to the boarding gates and soon the hapless staff there were inundated.

In another 10 minutes they announced boarding for my flight 6E 212 and I thought that all's well that ends well and headed to the gates where they gave me a fresh seat number. That's when I realised they were merging flights and that 6E 212 and 6E 423 would operate as one flight. But who cares about a new seat when the flight lasts all of 75 minutes?

That's when the horror started. We were in the aircraft at 3 pm and the pilot informed us that because of the flights being merged there was a bit of paperwork that would take 10 minutes. After 20 minutes he again came on air to say that it would take 10 more minutes. And again. And again, each time more agitated than before. The flight finally departed past 5 pm, and we had by then spent over 2 hours in the aircraft and the last few times the pilot gave us his 10-minute deadline, the whole aircraft was in splits because wags were having a field day.

Once we were airborne, the pilot came back on air and humbly requested us for 5 more minutes of our time so he could explain what happened. The aircraft scheduled to operate as 6E212 had a windshield wiper failure and hence had to be grounded till the part was replaced. Fair enough. Happens. Since two flights were being merged, it meant passenger manifests had to be merged and tallied, fuel consumption recalculated, etc. Again fair enough. Happens.

But what he said after that was shocking--he was clear that IndiGo's ground staff repeatedly misled him on how much time this would take-which led him to announce his 10-minute deadlines, which finally stretched to 2 hours. He was clear that the experience was unforgivable and absolutely not what IndiGo fliers expected and he couldn't have been more apologetic as repeatedly said sorry.

The cabin crew also did their best to make things up by putting in even more effort into their service, despite some very upset and rude fliers. They kept their cool and took a lot of the heat though it wasn't their fault. And I must mention here that during the 2-hour wait inside the aircraft the airline had arranged for a generator which kept basics like air-conditioning on (unlike many other airlines who get into the news on such unfortunate occasions). I vividly remember one much delayed Kingfisher flight at Hyderabad where after a delay and then a return to the terminal from the taxiway because of a 'technical' glitch, the lead cabin attendant cheerily and quite stupidly welcomed us to the Kingfisher experience-which resulted in some fliers blowing their smouldering fuses and simply storming off the aircraft-which delayed the flight even further. The IndiGo crew were much smarter and far more humble.

But apologies and trying to make up aside, I couldn't shake off the more important question-how could the ground handling team of a major airline suck so badly at their jobs that they couldn't even get basic paperwork right and repeatedly misled the pilot on how long it would take before he could get going? As IndiGo's fleet ages (some aircraft should be more than 6 years old now), you will see more such technical glitches and as a result flights being merged, etc. If processes and people completely fall apart into laughable confusion as they did with the crisis of 6E212 and 6E 423 on September 4, how long will fliers see IndiGo as a superb, efficient airline?

Worse was to come once we landed at Bangalore. Our baggage did not arrive on the belt we were told it would come on. Fliers from 6E 423 got their baggage and left. When we checked with IndiGo staff we were told to wait. Still nothing. Then they told us to go to another belt because 6E212's baggage "was in a different baggage compartment." We rushed there. Nothing. By then fliers from 6E212 were steaming again. We were again told to go back to the original belt. Nothing.

Finally, 45 minutes after the flight landed our baggage arrived on a completely different belt. IndiGo's ground staff in Bangalore didn't seem to give a damn and were quite rude-they claimed they were getting the wrong information repeatedly from their 'manager,' who was nowhere on the scene. Which again left me wondering-when a flight is so badly delayed as it is and fliers have been inside an aircraft for 2 hours because of horrifying inefficiency on the part of an airline, wouldn't it be common sense to ensure that proper communication goes out regarding baggage and doing that extra bit to take care that at least the last part of the experience is without hassles, rather than taking fliers on a merry-go-round of the baggage belts at the destination airport?

While I'll still prefer IndiGo over all others in Indian skies, my experience left me badly delayed for an important business engagement and it will take me years before I trust IndiGo completely to get me to my destination on time or thereabouts as I did before this. But what's of greater worry beyond my personal preferences is whether IndiGo can continue its agile efficiency saga as it grows bigger and bigger and more unwieldy. God knows we Indians have a sorry dearth of such made-in-India brands that are among the best in their class anywhere in the world, and of whom we can be rightfully proud of. It would be sad if the famous IndiGo efficiency story was merely a brief one and only lasted till the airline was small and young.