Air-India as a Metaphor for India's Problems.

by N.Balakrishnan


A visit to India can never be a simple affair for an Indian living abroad. There are two reasons for this - the first one is the endless hassles that Indian bureaucrats levy on the innocent traveller while gold by the tonnes is smuggled into the West Coast of India by organised gangs. The second is the genuine and almost suffocating warmth that one's relatives and friends shower upon you. While comforting it also has the effect of robbing one of one's freedom to do what one wants other than call on endless stream of relatives.

I made a mistake of flying by Air-India this time and the experience I had with them can serve as a useful reminder about what is wrong with India. I did not do it for patriotic reasons. I am too smart for that. But since my preferred airlines, Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines both arrive late at night in Madras and Air India arrived in daytime I thought I will give Air India a try this time. Since I was travelling with my six year old son I thought it is best not to be stranded in Madras late at night.

Let me get the little good news out of the way first. Indians can be justly proud that they fly Boeings and Air Buses with a full indigenous crew and of course the cabin staff are also completely Indian. By contrast more than half the pilots operating Singapore Airlines are foreign including many Indians and Australians. The cabin crew are also non-Singaporeans with women from many countries doing the "Singapore Girl" routine.

As those who have been to Singapore know only too well, no one in Singapore dresses the way the "Singapore Girl" does so the Singapore Airlines is a triumph of management and marketing whereas Air India is a shame and a bloat on society with 4,000 years of civilisation.

Singapore Airlines was founded only in 1972 whereas Air-India, founded in the 1940s is one of Asia's oldest airlines. In fact Air India used to send "consultants" to Singapore Airlines in the 1970s! That is the history about which we Indians are always proud of.

Now to the reality. Ever since the Babus who man the Indian government "nationalised" Air India things have been going downhill! When thinking about India's "nationalised" enterprises I am reminded of what Nirad Chaudhuri said about India's "public" sector - that India's so called "public" sector is not public at all but a very "private" one, run for the benefit of the employees who work in them and even spared the need to make money that plagues genuine private enterprises. So enterprises like Air India milk the Indian tax payer and serve the public poorly, while serving the employees well.

During the flight I saw Air India employees, helping themselves to the best food and small bottles of liquor meant for passengers. No one bothered to clean the toilet, which given our national unfamiliarity with the seat toilets, were heavily flooded by the end of the flight. In fact one of the toilets was sealed for "repair". The cabin crew were reading magazines and chatting at the back and the only passengers that they seem interested in serving were a bunch of packbacking American ladies with white skin. So much for 50 years of "independence".


I used to be a socialist when I was young (Malaysia's former Finance Minister Tan Siew Sin used to say that "those who are not communists when they are in their twenties do not have a heart and those who are communists in their forties do not have a head - I am forty now). Nor do I come from a "feudal" or a "wealthy" family in India. So my anger should not be mistaken as coming from someone too privileged to understand. But having thought the thing through I can say that the biggest liability that Indian society now has is the so called "Indian" government and the companies owned by it.

This "government" outfit which is a form of feudal oligarchy which is interested robbing the Indian public, particularly the very poor who have no voice to complain like me, of everything under the name of "socialism, " is nothing but a burden. The "private" sector in India may have its problems but as someone who also flew some of the private Airlines of India can testify, it is anytime better than the "public" enterprises.

It is not my intention to go on with a litany of complaints. But my experience indicates the depth of corruption that prevails in Indian "public" enterprises. After boarding the crisp and cool Cathay Pacific plane in Hong Kong, I arrived in the fantasyland of Singapore airport with four hours to spend where my boy had the thrill of playing at the Children's parks and Science Parks. I was four hours early for the Madras connection and I asked for and got two seats together for my boy and me.

When I was about to board the plane, the Air India employees changed our seat numbers. They gave both us separate seats which were about ten rows apart. I said that I had checked in early and gotten seats together and that it is ridiculous to separate a small boy from his father (the only adult travelling with him).

The Air India staff blamed the computer and did not do anything. Finally I found one of the Singapore Airline staff who handled the flight, who are schooled in different attitudes even if they work for Air India, and she was able to find me two seats together but only in the smoking section. She was also the only one who apologised to me for the error with the Maharajas of Air India thinking that it is beneath them to do so.

It is in a way a small incident but the main problem seems to be that seat allocation in Air India is done in a highly irregular fashion, much like the awarding of the licences by the "Licence Raj" and is done in corrupt ways to benefit those who run the airline. The same problem was to crop up again on my return flight from India with much more disastrous results.

I reconfirmed my return flight twice, the last time just twelve hours before departure. In fact the last time I called the "system" was down and an Air India employee himself was kind enough to call me to reconfirm the flight. I commented to my friend may be Air India is not so bad after all, without knowing what was waiting for us at the airport.


Since the Indians require that you check in three hours before departure, a system that is found no where else, I even went to the airport early. But with 60 passengers to go, the Air-India staff came and said that there were no more seats available. I know Airlines around the world overbook and bump off passengers but 60 seats out of 200 seat aircraft seems excessive and illogical.

After much confusion and standing in the airport for three hours, the restaurant in the Airport was on stream to serve breakfast. We were all put on the next flight for which we had to check in by mid-night the same day, four and half hours ahead of the flight. We were checked into what a Madras resident described as a "dung heap" of a hotel.

An Indian teacher, currently working in Singapore, had a ready explanation for what was happening. He said that it is unlikely that overbooking could account for so many being bumped off. It is also unlikely that flights were all full since they were able to accommodate so many of us the very next day.

His explanation was that some tour group or another in Bombay had to make a connection in Singapore earlier so they bribe the Bombay office to staff to release sixty seats so the confirmed passengers in Madras have to be put on the next flight. Since it is the company and ultimately the Indian public that picks up the expenses of putting up passengers and it is the Air India employees who will get the bribes, it is all right. The Madras office will make up some cock and bull story about why so many passengers were bumped off.

Ordinarily I will hesitate to jump so quickly to such a conclusion. But an article in India Today which I read in the same plane convinced me that the senior management of Air India is only interested in bilking airline for its own benefit. The article reported that the Board of Directors of Air India have just voted for themselves and their families (yes families too) first class travel privileges for the rest of their lives. Even the "respected" Mr. Mood, has made it a point of signing this into effect before resigning from the board. With a board like that no wonder the rest of the Air-India employees behave like this.

At the individual level the conclusion is simple. I will not fly Air India as long as it is owned by the Indian government. Oddly I noticed that Indian Airlines, which used to be the pits, actually seems better now than Air India. For example, Indian Airlines, seems to have made at least some of its flights non-smoking whereas Air India staff are not there to enforce the non-smoking even in the non-smoking areas. I am sure that the increased competiton in India's domestic sector is what changed Indian Airlines.

If it does not change Air India is doomed to remain a "coolie" airline dependant on low airfares to the Gulf and wherever it flies and with its only asset being the ability to restrict the foreign airlines the right to land in India. The real question is why should the Indian public subsidise these "Maharajas" and get lousy services in return. Is it "anti-Indian" or anti-patriotic to want to fly by "foreign" airlines which treat you with more dignity than the "Indian" product living off Indian tax payer money?


Such questions go to the crux of the economic debate going on in India about whether economic liberalisation will lead to Indian companies perishing from the "foreign" onslaught. To me the only reason for having "Indian" companies around is that they serve the national interest better than the foreign ones or render better service than the foreign companies. Neither is true in the case of Air India. So what is the logic of calling this company Air "India" when it serves no one except those who work for it?

I am all for selling Air India to Gulf Air or Singapore Airlines or whoever wants it. All of it India will be better served by it. The employees of Air India who for the first time may have to work to earn a living may not like it. But does it matter?

N.Balakrishnan
January, 1997

P.S. Talking about Indian bureaucrats creating unnecessry work, why is it that Air India religously collects the boarding passes from passengers on arrival? As for as I konw this is the only airline that does this.

Most immigration and tax authorities around the world treat boarding passes, not the tickets, as proof of passage and Air India staff, who could not be bothered with so many things in the airport or cabin, insist on collecting these. I will call the Air India to find out about this but so vivid is the memory of bad treatment in Madras, that I may end up losing my temper while talking to them.

As ancient Indian wisdom has it, I thoght it is better to leave Air India to self-destrcut rather than lose my temper about it.


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N.Balakrishnan
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