Air India, the wonderfully adorable rogue

Air India’s (AI) FPlight

I prefer Air India whenever I go abroad if there is a direct flight. I don’t go anywhere near it on domestic routes. Generally they are on time on overseas trips. This time however was different. There was a 3 hour delay – 45 minutes before check in, 5 minutes at the check in asking us to wait, aircraft faulty announcement after 5 min, change of boarding gate and 15 min walk, 15 minutes on what to do there, 30 minutes before announcing alternative aircraft is ready, (believe me) 45 minutes to locate some busses to take us to the aircraft. Mostly some contract staff were there to handle the irate passengers and not a bottle of water during our wait in the basement lounge area where we were housed during the time.

Managed to read Swaraj by MK Gandhi. Published in 1962 and bought by me in 1996 and the pages were flaking. All in all I lost more respect for MK Gandhi than I did for AI after reading the book during the 3 hour delay. I used to worship him in my school days, used to think he was a progressive socialist during my college days but the book paints him as a staunch village level status quoist of may be 2-3 centuries back. Sample the statements:

On Labour: ‘How can a man who does not do body labour have the right to eat?’

On Economics: ‘An economics that … enables the strong to amass wealth at the expense of the weak is a false dismal science’.

For him the end of medical development is a basic training to the village mid wife. Free trade begins and ends strictly with the neighbouring villages.

It is of course misleading to judge even a book leave alone a man with a few sentences. Sample these great ones:

Swaraj Govt will be a sorry affair if people look upto it for the regulation of every detail of life.

Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of the authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity by all to resist authority when it is abused.

By Education I mean an all round drawing out of the best in child and man – body, mind and spirit. Literacy is not the end of education nor the beginning. It is only one of the means by which one can be educated.

If you find my initial judgement too harsh let me correct myself… with the current state of my understanding, I find it difficult to appreciate many of his thoughts; may be I will understand him better as I reach 70 or 80.    

Back to AI. AI to me like Kolcutta, is a wonderfully adorable rascal (or rogue). The more you experience its roughs and toughs, the more it grows on you. In Kolcutta you may have to face the daily jostle, the stubborn taxi driver who refuses to budge from his lunch interval, the clerk who arrives at 10.30 for an office starting at 9 am and insists on his Chai time of 30 minutes, argumentative, a guest house keeper who insists on feeding you what he wants than make what you tell him, etc. But is also the place where I feel most safe. It is there I am most likely to be helped up if I fall in the middle of road with a stroke or attack. I don’t think one has to worry about eve teasing or mugging there … almost everyone is keeping a watch on everyone else … a kind of social policing … not the kind of leering looks in Chennai, not the indifference of Mumbai as if I am piece of statistics or in Delhi as if I am a piece of meat. There is about the place an inner core something each of us crave for – a sense of security and dignity – a more humane place but may be not commercially chick.

Same with AI. May be not as responsive as a commercial carrier should be. But I tend to dismiss their short service or even abrasion to short training or their irritability to the place of their dwelling in India, etc. There is never a feeling of racism or being looked down upon in condescension or contempt. But when I encounter the same thing in Thai, CA, SA or Lufthansa (of late seems far more polite and friendly) I feel put down, condescended to or being tolerated. Plus the food in AI is great and Indian, leg space good, and now the aircrafts are also new … and occasionally you can bully the pliant looking, eager to please hosts to serve us the extra tea, snack or something without being spoken back sternly.

They started serving Lunch at 4 pm. A host, well groomed and totally thick black hair in what I believed could be a man in mid-40s asked me ‘what for you sir – veg or non-veg?’

‘I have asked for an Indian Vegetarian’. Slightly sternly.

‘You have asked for an Indian Vegetarian. It shall be served to you, Sir,’ he said in a bouncy voice in a Boman Irani esque naughtiness – you could tell the cheekiness yet not take offense of it. I realized the Veg in AI could pass for Indian veg or Asian veg or normal veg that they serve to anyone who asks for veg.

After all service was over, I went to back alley in the Dreamliner.   There he was the Boman Irani and 2 co-hostesses doing some accounting of stocks left of drinks, snacks etc. I asked the man ‘how long have you been with AI.’

’27 years,’ he didn’t vacillate.

Me: ‘How have you retained your sense of humour even after 27 years man?’

Him: ‘Life is too short to be spent worrying. I am already 56’. Said in a half justifying half admonishing way (the undertone seemed ‘if you are sulking over such things please give up buddy. It is simply not worth it. I am telling you from my experience’).

He seemed game for a conversation and I asked him ‘who is the best minister AI has had?’

‘I don’t know if we have had any best minister but I can tell who was the worst’.

He mentioned the name of the man with impish smile who comes on TV shows arguing triumphantly on his achievements. I was surprised he dared mention the name.

During the course of further conversation I learnt the following:

  • There have been no promotions for the last 17 years (he said we – I don’t know if he meant whole of AI or his cadre/section alone).
  • There has been no salary revision for the last 13 years in AI.
  • There are several occasions when the salary was paid 3-4 months late.
  • The allowances of travelling staff have been cut by 35% over the last 10 years or so citing poor finances.
  • AI bought some 22 (or 42 – some such large number) Boeing 777 ERs and LRs for $700 million/aircraft (he is wrong – it must have been Rs 700 cr per aircraft i.e $ 140-170 mil/aircraft). After 2-3 years these were sold as being fuel inefficient at $ 50 mil apiece to a Gulf Airline. (he mentioned a specific name).
  • …To buy the brand new and untested Dreamliner. None of the usual benefits of buying a new airliner like introduction discounts, late delivery penalties, etc. accrued to AI.
  • Similarly route rights were surrendered to foreign airlines at virtually no compensation to AI.

I asked him about the new minister. ‘No politician can or will do anything. It is their milch cow. Why would they kill it’.

I asked him if things were so bad why didn’t they opt for take over by Tatas instead of resisting it.

‘But who asked us. If only they ask us all of us will vote to go’ the stewardess to my right who till that time had not spoken a word snapped in anguish.

The Boman Irani chorused her with a lag. ‘But every time the question comes up, these politicians and Bureaucracy lobby will instigate some sections of the Union and make it as if employees are against it’.

Long Live what was judged World’s Best Airline sometime in the 1950/60s.

Like Bihar at one time was judged the best province under the British Crown when it had nearly 80 countries under its rule.

And now the IIM Bill. Lets await the day they make a AI out of IIMs.

2 thoughts on “Air India, the wonderfully adorable rogue

  1. A wonderful write up and a good insight into the affairs of AI. Same thing can be said of AIR, mainly programme wing. No recruitment for the past 20 years, no regular promotions for 15 years and top level posts vacant which cannot be filled even with adhoc promotions! No new blood but 100 new stations opened in this time. Programme people spread thin and also with an increase in the hours of transmission they are content in filling up the air time. Occasionally they may do some good programmes out of frustration!


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