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No Air about India

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 11, 2008 1:52 pm    Post subject: No Air about India Reply with quote
Sunanda K Datta-Ray:
No Air about India

Sunanda K Datta-Ray / New Delhi October 11, 2008, 0:07 IST

Air India's poor image befits that of an airline run by and for babus.

J R D Tata told me once that one of the biggest disappointments of his life was to be dropped from Air India’s board by Morarji Desai. Seeing his creation humbled in international aviation circles and saddled with a mind-boggling Rs 3,000-crore debt, he might have been relieved. Even its cost-cutting measures are farcical for the pious declaration sternly to refuse to upgrade passengers to First Class excludes Business Class where most of the upgrading takes place, as I saw only last week in an Airbus A330-200 on an 11-hour non-stop flight.

Professionally run carriers that must show profits or face extinction regularly kick a few full-paying Economy Class passengers upstairs if there is no other way of selling more seats in an otherwise packed Economy. But upgrading is automatic for JRD’s great legacy that successive governments in New Delhi have humbled if not destroyed. Mind you, upgrading is not for ordinary paying passengers — the beneficiaries must have influence in governance.

My empty flight was as comfortable as a private charter if one overlooked inconveniences like the drop-down tabletop being covered with a child’s ballpoint pen scrawls and some of the in-flight literature sticky with sweets. The plane could accommodate 279 passengers (255 in Economy and 24 in Business) and though without a First Class, it boasted a separate downstairs cabin with a row of toilets and some cosy seats. There wasn’t a single Business Class booking and only 40 of us thinly scattered in Economy. With nine crew members, that meant 4.4 passengers per attendant, suggesting the luxury of being waited on hand and foot up in the air. Yet, I heard — as did everyone else — a passenger’s wail in comic rhyming Bengali, “Whiskey khabo! Kothai pabo? There’s no service anywhere!”

I was lucky with a politely attentive steward. But that’s not the point. The point is that Air India has become another facility that the Indian welfare state lavishes on its favoured sons and daughters at the exchequer’s cost. For no sooner were we airborne than a steward made his way to two or three very ordinary looking passengers and whispered in their ears, whereupon they gathered their belongings and made a beeline for the curtain that cut off the front from us cattle class folk. Were they bureaucrats or politicians, I asked. “I don’t know, sir” the steward mumbled in embarrassment. How then were they singled out for upgrading? “The captain’s instructions” he explained. Incidentally, the captain didn’t come to the mike even once on that long haul. Skippers on other flights always do.

Praful Patel’s exclusion of Business Class guarantees India’s vast army of civil servants and legislators that they will continue to enjoy in the air a lifestyle to which they are not accustomed on land. Upgrading has become as much a perk of office as dearness allowance or subsidised house rent. The cost of aviation turbine fuel, a high wage bill, aircraft leasing charges, asset depreciation, poor service and competitive ticketing are supplementary causes for the carrier’s mounting losses. The principal reason why there’s no longer an Air about India (to adapt Bobby Kooka’s immortal phrase) is that Air India is run for and by official functionaries.

That was why Singapore withdrew its bid for a share of equity. The Singaporeans feared that no airline could ever make a profit with so much free travel (apparently including lifetime First Class entitlement for all retiring chairmen) as well as so many redundant employees. The civil aviation minister is right only up to a point in saying that Air India won’t issue new shares because “No one will go for an IPO in the present market and conditions.” He would have been even more correct if he had said, “No one will go for an IPO in Air India in the present conditions.” The Singaporeans felt that a small share of equity would not enable them to make any difference to inefficient and wasteful management.

But never mind, Air India doesn’t need Singapore’s funding. Our civil servants and politicians can look after themselves. Jet is raising fares, Kingfisher is cutting jobs, foreign airlines are studying ways of improving performance and profitability. Faced with its huge deficit, Air India has promised to increase the government’s stake in equity from Rs 150 crore to Rs 1,500 crore. Not only is it throwing more good money — the taxpayer’s money — after bad but the only taxpayers with any say in the decision have a vested interest in Air India remaining their private carrier.
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