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Why Air India Wont Do

Omkar Goswami


I was slated to travel to London on 14 July this year. After a horrendous flying experience with Air India from Nairobi to Delhi in 1996, I had limited my Europe and USA flying choices to British Airways, KLM-Northwest, Lufthansa and, occasionally, Air France and Swissair. This time, my colleague in charge of air travel and my boss convinced me that I should give Air India a try. The two-for-one offer (buy an executive or first class ticket and your companion is free) was an added bonus.


That Sunday, it was a morning flight to London. Let me start by emphasising that the staff at the check-in counter were impeccably polite and efficient. They rapidly checked in my companion, Radhika, and me to our pre-assigned seats on the upper deck of the Jumbo, gave us our boarding and lounge cards, all with courtesy and smiles. My Indian pride and spirit soared, even as we were nursing poorly brewed instant coffee at the grotty Ashok restaurant, awaiting departure.


The aircraft looked passable. Sure, there were strips of adhesive holding broken bits of arm rests and overhead luggage bays. The flooring could have done with a dry cleaning or two, and the interiors needed some scrubbing and touching up. The aircraft was one of oldest Jumbos in the world. But the staff seemed polite. Radhika and I had enough material to read. And I thought I had picked the best seats on the upper deck ó the ones just before the emergency exit with massive leg room. All was well with the world as we were sipping orange juice and waiting for take off.


Suddenly, a short, thin man wearing an ill-fitting suit was directed to the jump seat bang opposite us and right next to the emergency exit. He sat down, clipped on his safety belt and, less than eighteen inches away from our faces, and proceeded to ogle at Radhika in a time-honoured sub-continental way. There is little else he could have done. He was sitting bang opposite a woman less than a foot and a half away. There were only two directions he could look at ó towards me or at Radhika. Not surprisingly, he chose the latter.


I soon discovered that this was no mistake. The flight was over-booked. This man, an employee of Air India, was directed to the emergency jump seat opposite ours. I protested, first with the stewardesses, then with the purser, and finally with an incredibly rude man who was the flight commander.


Here were my objections. First, I was a full fare paying executive class passenger, and my implicit contract with Air India did not specify a man sitting opposite us on a jump seat for nine hours. Second, that in all respectable international airlines, the emergency jump seats are occupied by trained cabin crew during take off and landing. It is a necessary part of air safety, which canít be compromised by plonking an untrained person. Third, the rule in all civilised airlines is that employees, staff and relatives fly according to load. In simple English it means that they fly only if there are free seats after accommodating all fare paying passengers. Since the flight was over-booked, the man on the jump seat ought to be asked to disembark, and catch the next available flight. Fourth, the attitude that went with the act showed that Air India cared a tuppence for those who paid money that financed the salaries of the employees. 


My arguments fell on deaf ears. The stewardesses were polite but were too low in the food chain to do anything. The purser was a humourless (which I saw instantly) and utterly inefficient man (which I observed subsequently), who had probably got to where we was on the basis of his sex and seniority. Like a good babu, he passed the buck on to the hallowed commander.


Enter the mighty macho from the cockpit. He started by greeting Radhika (apparently he had met her at some party), and then said something like the following. Number one, the flight is over-booked. Number two, I have the discretion to allow Air India staff to occupy jump seats. Number three, I have exercised this authority, and you have nothing to say about that. Number four, my staff member stays. Number five, the two of you have a choice: either grin and bear it for the next nine hours, or disembark immediately, because I have my big mean machine to fly.


I am known to be arrogant. But I swear that I have rarely met a more arrogantly obnoxious man than that great commander.


The postscript: We stayed on, because we had to get to London by that afternoon. A very pleasant mother and son duo graciously offered to exchange seats, which we thankfully accepted. At 35,000 feet, the stewardesses apologised for their rude commander. And I have sworn never to fly Air India ever again. Why? Because there is no reason for me to deal with this when I can get better. Because this is clearly an organisation that cares more for its staff than its customers. And thatís why Air India just wonít doÖ But what does it care?


Published: Business World, October 2002

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