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HomeBUSINESSAir India: will the Maharaja get back to business?

Air India: will the Maharaja get back to business?

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As I read of the handing over of Air India to the Tata Group, a sweet homecoming after 69 years I noticed Tata group Chairman N. Chandrasekaran’s comment about how he took his first flight on Air India.

My First Flight:

Sometime in 1977 or so I was an irresponsible teenager whose thinking did not extend beyond the next 10 minutes at best. My grandparents in their 70s were invited by their daughter my aunt to spend some time with her family in the USA. The only option then was to fly from Mumbai, or Bombay as it was then called. All things were set, and my grandparents developed cold feet at having to fly to Bombay in the morning, spend a whole day, then catch a flight in the middle of the night. In those days nobody flew much and so this was to be the first time they would step inside an aircraft. Their physical frailties also worried them.

At the last moment, my uncle suggested that I could accompany them from Bangalore to Bombay and be with them till they boarded the aircraft and fly back home the next morning. In those days we could literally go right up to the door of the aircraft and even inside to drop off aged relatives. The bonus to this whole plan was that Air India would give my grandparents a room at the 5 star Centaur hotel and meals. A cousin of mine from Pune offered to join us. I was very excited as this was going to be my first flight in life – on Air India/ Indian Airlines.

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Taking care of grandparents was the last thing on our minds. The opportunity to stay and eat at a 5-star hotel or the possibility of bumping into Dharmendra, Hema Malini or some other film stars was uppermost in our mind. Little did we know what lay in store for us.

Everything went like a breeze and we accompanied our grandparents to the boarding gate, friendly staff of Air India promised to take care of them, and sometime after midnight as we stepped out of the airport I and my cousin whooped with joy and raced back to Centaur hotel to sleep and enjoy the comforts and the bathtub in particular. We were in for a shock when the staff at the reception politely told us that our stay and entry into the hotel premises was only till the time my grandparents left. The fact that I had to catch a flight the next day did not figure in their hospitality plan. So we were asked to leave and politely conveyed that we could not sit in the reception overnight.

So, after midnight I and my cousin found ourselves on the footpath outside Bombay airport looking at each other wondering what to do. We had a long night ahead of us, we didn’t exactly have any money and luckily the weather wasn’t too bad. We sat morosely on the footpath watching the cars whizzing past, the street food vendors, and while I sat cursing the assignment, my cousin sat cursing me for putting him in this predicament. He could have been sleeping in his bed at home instead of sitting on a footpath in Bombay.

We had read stories of how chaps sat on footpaths in Bombay and lady luck had smiled on them and they had become film stars overnight and I tried to cheer us up with such dreams. He almost chased me all over the place saying such chaps were also picked up by cops, gangsters. Finally, resigned to our fate, my cousin said that Bombay is a city that never sleeps and we would put that theory to test. With bright streetlights all over, we spent the rest of the night wandering all over the area, experiencing the colours, sights, smells of Bombay, the traffic never seemed to stop, we invariably bumped into people on the road and the theory was indeed true. Finally exhausted by the early hours, we ate vada pav from a street vendor and the moment the airport opened to allow passengers inside, my cousin pushed me in and went off to catch a bus to Pune while I winged it back to Bangalore. I can’t even remember that journey or even the final bus ride back home, totally exhausted.

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It was a long time before I could see the comedy in that experience – first flight to first five star and then the first night on the footpath – all within a timespan of 24 hours.

Escaping Death:

By the early ’90s I had started working, so catching a flight was commonplace. I was scheduled to fly to Goa. I had a waitlisted ticket at something like 10 or 15 and was sure that I had no chance to get a seat but I still went to the Bangalore airport around mid-morning. Sure enough, the flight was announced, I didn’t get a seat, and this flight was the last flight for a while and the airport emptied up quickly. For reasons unknown I sat there thinking if I should take a bus or what since my client meeting the next day was important. Literally, the only chap left I suddenly saw the Indian airline chappie waving to me and calling me. I went to him, and he said that a couple who were to be on the flight could not board because only one of them got a confirmed seat and so there was one seat left and the aircraft was waiting and if I could run I could board. I could not believe my luck when a voice in my head said – is there something that destiny has in store for you?

Dismissing all such thoughts I boarded, soon we were cruising. The aircraft had the full contingent of the West Indies cricket team on its way to Goa for a match but I did not get much chance to go talk to them. I had a middle seat, lunch was served and one moment I was eating and the next food was flying all over the place and the aircraft went haywire. Before I could panic, the chappie next to me in the window seat with a beaming smile said – Air Pocket. I relaxed. The chaos continued for some seconds and then suddenly the plane levelled off and in hushed silence, we landed in Goa. As I stepped out I heard an air hostess tell someone – god saved us, another passenger said something about good flying and I did not give a 2nd thought and went off to my hotel.

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Early next day I drove to my meeting and met the client and his team and as soon as they saw me, they all shook hands with various comments like “You are lucky” “What an escape” and so on and I was bewildered. I asked what they were talking about and they were taken aback at my ignorance till one of them asked me to read the newspaper. It spoke about how the flight on which I was the previous day had momentarily lost control and was nose-diving to the ground before regaining control and landing safely. I got into a panic over the incident reading this and if that chappie sitting next to me on the flight was there, I would have first kicked him for his idiotic pronouncement and then hugged him for not creating panic. But in any case, I think I escaped death that day.

First International flight:

If my first flight ever was a comfort to discomfort story, my first international flight was a variation of the same. Early 2001 I was to board an Air India flight from Mumbai. The flight as usual was at some ungodly hour in the night and I was at the airport around 9 PM. Those days airports had little comfort and millions of mosquitoes. The lady at the check-in politely refused to let me check in because the counter hadn’t opened yet. I still had 4 hrs before the counter opened. Resigned to my fate with a heavy suitcase filled with MTR ready to eat food packets I wondered what to do next.

An Air India employee, maybe a senior chap standing there spoke to the lady in Marathi and between them they got busy. Soon the lady called me and said she would help so I could relax properly. She took my heavy suitcase, gave me the boarding card and all that stuff and with a friendly smile told me to relax and rest till the boarding time. I was grateful and went in search of a chair to sit in and spent the next 4 to 5 hrs swatting mosquitoes, jumping around and generally cursing my situation.

Much past midnight I decided to check if the counters were open and as I walked I bumped into the lady who had helped me. She gave me a surprised look and asked – what are you doing here? I said that I was waiting for the counters to open so I could go inside. She said – we helped you check-in and gave you a pass so you could go inside and sleep in the lounge since this place is full of mosquitoes and you stayed there all the while? I had no words to say as I was feeling like a complete idiot which I was at that point. She just shook her head and walked away saying – at least now go inside.

Frequent Flyer:

In over 30 years of flying the best frequent flyer program, I have experienced is the one that Indian Airlines/ Air India had. You genuinely felt rewarded because the free ticket you finally redeemed seemed worth its while, had value. When they gave you a value of Rs 100 it was indeed Rs. 100. Today every loyalty program is a sham that when they give you Rs. 100 all you can redeem it for is Rs. 1 or Rs 2 at best.  

A once globally acclaimed airline was run into the ground by a series of blunders by the government after government as they plundered the airline and soon the unions and staff joined this plunder and today the airline is in a sorry state.

The airline will have to remember the golden days, diamond class service, global class management which is what Air India was known for a long time. Above all Air India had a sense of humour, a cheekiness, it was as iconic as the Amul moppet and their cheeky branding. If the new Air India team can recreate that old magic, they can beat the global airlines and again become a leader, the pride of India and the preferred airline to travel on. They need to discard that stiff-necked Sarkari outlook and become peppy, contemporary, fun, and young.   

The current employees if they have even an iota of pride and loyalty to their job, employer, airline, brand coupled with an iota of commitment and wish for regaining the old glory and passenger loyalty would do well to trust the Tata Group and support them and make Air India great again.

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Ravindra Vasisht
Ravindra Vasisht
Ravindra Vasisht is Regional Director – India, of a global MNC. An engineer by profession and PG in Rural Management he has over 35 years of experience in various industries like Food Processing, Automotive, Healthcare, Electronics, Electrical, Defense, Plastics, Composites & Natural gas. His personal interests include Economics, Defense, Politics, and Strategy.


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