It is unfair to say that Air India is the leader in emergency landings... I do not go into Air India bashing at all. It is unfair to say this.
— Ashok Gajapathi Raju, Union Civil Aviation minister
Air India was, in the seventies, the trendsetter for the world.
I recall the pride in the Maharajah and the brilliance of the Bobby Kooka ad campaigns that reflected India’s finest ambassador.
For four decades and past an endless stream of managing directors, each with his own agenda, the Maharajah was defrocked and disgraced. Like a frog on a lily pad, waiting to be kissed and saved from the evil spell cast upon him. Begging for it.
Run by proxy from the out-offices of the Ministry of Civil Aviation by a slew of ministers and their minions Air India turned from that proud ambassador in the sky to a punch bag for all and sundry.
By these machinations of the nation’s leaders and the emotional blackmail of her passengers Air India has been frequently diverted from its main aim of providing a service and making a profit.
That said, enough of the mudslinging and the whipping. Air India’s current efforts to make a comeback need to be lauded. If it has turned into the black this year for the first time in ten years — as the Civil Aviation minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju told Parliament on Tuesday — it’s no small feat.
The conditioned contempt must stop. In brief these are the four aspects that demand attention.
Indian passengers treat Air India like an outhouse. While they will sit like quiet mice on a foreign airline, whining and whinging about Air India comes with the territory and they are all tigers. Ergo, the image of a bad airline survives.
Indian politicians and bureaucrats treat Air India like it was their private taxi. Delaying flights for their excellencies is common and regularly reported, not that anyone cares. This ridiculous idea that government servants must be upgraded, allowed to break the rules and bring on heavy luggage into the cabin has to be removed. It is not their private fiefdom.
The third point is about the weak and febrile unions who have lost the plot. The Indian Pilots Guild which was once a gutsy boxer is now just a label. While the world’s aviation empowers its crew to a fault, in India they are subservient to big bosses and political so-called VIPs. The old concerns of not being backed if there is a complaint survive and thrive.
The final nail is that of image. Air India is seen as a stodgy, full, dreary aunt wearing sensible shoes. There is no glamour, no excitement, no innovation. As a result the pick-up is slow. It needs a Bobby Kooka.
It is still widely believed that on-time performance is impossible in Air India. Which is why we hear top executives, Indian sports teams, official delegations moaning at the idea of flying Air India.
Despite all this crap thrown at the Maharajah, his staff soldier on. Here are five factors you need not believe but are true.
Air India crew are still the warmest and friendliest people in modern aviation, often victims of Airport ineptitude for which they have to answer uncharitably. If there is no wheel chair, it is not their purview but blame the airline.
Air India flight deck crew are the finest pilots and that is why after the Emperor Ashoka and Kanishka tragic crashes we have a good safety record, skewed a bit by the Mangalore crash of 2010. By that token when we had half dead planes, engineering kept them flying and that is a tribute to their expertise.
For a nation fascinated by food, Air India inflight catering is way ahead of the rubber chicken offered by other carriers. But we love to complain because we can. And silently eat rubbish on other carriers abroad and at home.
Air India passengers are demanding, often insufferable because they all know someone and the airline is often co-opted to conduct non-revenue making exercises. From extra baggage weight to upgrading seats for anyone and his uncle to all kinds of favours, AI passengers have taken the cake.
Add to this the service protocol. The airline has been chewed upon and spat out by political expediency, a line of ignorant bureaucrat chief executives, a freeze on professional in-house promotions, lack of route planning, a suspension on the yield factor and an arbitrary invasion of its commercial dictate. Let me elaborate.
Whether it is offering expat Indian children free rides home for excellence in studies or sponsoring Indian cultural activities and festivals, Air India is a sort of friendly under-the-gun inductee who gets it severely in the neck if it does not respond in accepted fashion to crises of all kinds including freeloaders with contacts.
So whether it is agreeing to transport the bodies of dead expats for free or explaining why fares to the southern cities cannot be reduced to forking out freebies for India’s secular festival entertainments, fairs and exhibitions, flying MPs on jaunts and inaugurals or ‘fact-finding’ sprees, blocking three Jumbo widebodies for a VIP flight and thirty-odd other such ridiculous commands, Air India’s social role competes directly with its professional one. And wins. Check the unpaid bills of our leaders and their delegations. It runs into crores.
If Air India, despite all this extra weight, is again flying high then we should salaam the Maharajah and his retinue right to the aircraft toilet cleaners who have to deal with some of the most inconsiderate passengers in the world.
Tailpiece: Tuesday is the first month anniversary of my trying to get my money back from Indigo who have officially told me they owe me 741 dirhams. I have written letters to senior officials, sent a paper trail of emails to its head office via Gurgaon, listened to music on the phone for hours, dialled hotlines that are stone cold and answered chat questions on their site. Monday, at Dubai Airport I went to their office and was told that when I reach Delhi there will be call from the head office and I should stand by. I have been standing by all day.
Updated Date: May 04, 2016 14:05 PM