Can Air India be worthy of its Maharaja again?

Arvind Kejriwal had better watch out.

Narendra Modi might just hijack his party from under his nose.

The Times of India reports that Narendra Modi has told aviation minister P Ashok Gajapathi Raju that the Maharaja should be replaced by “the aam aadmi as the mascot for Indian aviation”.

Modi might have been speaking figuratively suggesting it's time for the sector to shed its elitist tag. But in reality that’s long gone and even if Air India brings back hot meals on its flights, only very foolish people will think they are surrendering to the lap of luxury when they board an aircraft. People board planes because they have to, not because they want to give themselves a treat.

The airports have gotten fancier with great expanses of gleaming floors and Café Coffee Day outlets galore but the experience of flying has been taking a nosedive for a while now.

With Rs 49000 crore accumulated losses in the sector, chances are the in-flight experience is not going to get much better very soon. Air India has a Rs 3000 crore share in that Rs 49,000 crore hole.

This is one very sick Maharaja. “It is a matter of shame that retired air hostesses and some other officers have not been paid their pension and other legitimate dues, compelling them to seek redress in court,” wrote Ram Jethmalani in The Sunday Guardian.

And this at a time time when a CAG report revealed India Airlines had planned to buy 43 Airbus crafts for Rs 8,399 cr and Air India was trying to pick up 50 long-range craft for Rs 33,197 crore.

 Can Air India be worthy of its Maharaja again?

The Air India Maharaja is not the biggest problem that the airline faces. AFP

Firstpost’s R. Jagannathan outlined some of the reasons for Air India’s sorry state based on the CAG report including an ill-thought out merger with Indian Airlines and funding huge aircraft buys. He had this grim diagnosis:

There is no point throwing good money after bad in public sector units. In Air India's case, the only flaw in the CAG report surfaces here. It has suggested an equity infusion to help the airline reduce its debts and give it a chance to succeed. Air India is currently seeking an equity infusion of Rs 6,600 crore, but given its scale of losses, there is no way it can be made viable if ministers and babus are going to run it.

The public pretty much assumes now that flying in general will be more a royal pain than a Maharaja experience. The seats will get scrunched and less comfortable. The food will be for sale, perhaps even the water. And the allowed baggage limits will slink ever downwards to wring every last rupee out of its passengers. Soon we might end up like the US domestic carriers which first allowed two pieces of checked-in baggage, then made the second one chargeable and now charge for both.

If international flights were once safe from this pettiness, Air Asia, in the name of low-cost has added on a slew of charges for services that were once par for the course on international flights – a meal, choosing your own seat, luggage allowances.

Shashi Tharoor might have got into hot water for saying it once, but we are all cattle class now, herded into planes where we read in-flight magazines gushing about fully reclining beds and showers in the discreetly out-of-sight and stratospherically expensive first-class cabin.

In this scenario, it is true the Maharaja is a rather out-of-place mascot for our flying our not-so-friendly skies. However it’s worth remembering that the Maharaja was never meant to be blue-blooded royalty. Bobby Kooka who conceived the Maharaja in 1946 said “We call him a Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn't blue. He may look like royalty, but he isn't royal.” He is, says the Air India website “almost like a friend to every Air India traveller. A friend who reaches out with warmth and hospitality, even to the farthest corners of the world.”

Of course that is where the Maharaja has fallen flat on his face not just to the public but also the retired air hostesses seeking their pensions.

On the other hand, its current staff has not covered itself in glory either with stories recently about flights delayed because the crew took their own sweet time to get to the airport. On 13 February, an air hostess reached the terminal two hours after a flight to Australia was scheduled to depart. Another wanted to only fly to Dubai. When 17 crew members, mostly from Mumbai, were terminated, Mumbai MPs cutting across party lines pushed for them to be reinstated proving that their nonchalance about work was directly linked to their political connections. PTI later reported Air India “unconditionally” took back the 13 who were full-time employees after they wrote an “apology” saying they were “misguided by unions”.

In 2013 Air India was ranked the world’s third least safe airline after China Airlines and TAM Airline according to the Jet Airliner Crash Evaluation Data Centre’s survey of 60 airlines. It's a long way from the airline Jethmalani remembers as making history with the first non-stop flight between New Delhi and New York City in 1993. Air India started with one Puss Moth and one Leopard Moth and wrote Jethmalani "grew rapidly and modernised speedily in the early years, and became a symbol of pride and glamour for our country."

It’s clear that Air India is carrying far more problematic baggage than its supposedly elitist mascot. The friendly Maharaja might be the only positive for the beleagured airline, a nostalgic tribute to forgotten services. Instead of advising Air India to junk the Maharaja for the aam aadmi Modi would do well to advise his minister to make the airline live up to the royal promise of its mustachioed mascot.

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Updated Date: Jun 23, 2014 15:43:11 IST


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