Azra Ali Abbas: Lucid memories of the changing skies

Abbas’s two decades in the airline industry, which has seen a dramatic change, chronicle the life and times of the Indian traveler

Abbas’s first job as a ticket reservation agent in 1986 came after a newspaper ad led her to enrol in a year-long diploma in travel and tourism. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Abbas’s first job as a ticket reservation agent in 1986 came after a newspaper ad led her to enrol in a year-long diploma in travel and tourism. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Bengaluru: Azra Ali Abbas’s memories of booking airline tickets in the mid-1980s are very different from what urban Indians are used to today. Travel agencies then were the sweat shops and Abbas’s job as a ticket reservation agent meant assisting wealthy travelers, frugal labourers and pious pilgrims to travel to various countries.

“One couldn’t think of logging on to the Internet and booking tickets individually,” she said. The industry has since then undergone a dramatic change. Abbas’s two decades in the industry chronicle the life and times of the Indian traveler.

Abbas’s life, much like in those times, was simple. Career choices were few, weddings arranged and salaries modest.

“We didn’t have plenty of options then—women were restricted to being teachers, nurses or doctors... Engineers, unlike today, were far and few,” recalls Abbas, who grew up in Mumbai and later moved to Bhopal— following her father who worked in the sales department of Godrej Industries Ltd’s typewriter division.

Abbas spent the next two decades working in Chennai, after a broken marriage and a subsequent job made her settle in Tamil Nadu. Abbas now lives a modest life in Bengaluru, where her son works in a top information technology (IT) company.

Abbas’s first job as a ticket reservation agent in 1986 came after a newspaper advertisement led her to enrol in a year-long diploma in travel and tourism. Her interest in the profession came with the ease of doing the job. “It was nine-five and stable,” she said.

Until the late 1980s, only a few Indians could afford to fly. Abbas recounts that four-five international flights in a week that took off from Chennai ferried 300-350 passengers per flight. Wealthy businessmen, pilgrims and skilled/unskilled labourers travelled to the US, the Gulf and Europe. Travel for leisure was restricted to the rich.

Abbas’s days in the agencies, where pay was frugal (her first job paid Rs.500 per month) and the work intense, were spent reserving and booking tickets for travelers to the Gulf.

The oil boom in the Middle East in the 1970s and 1980s spurred mass migration of labourers from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh to the region. Uneducated labourers sold agriculture land and even jewellery to travel to the oil-rich countries of the Gulf, where promise of better income and employment awaited.

For a decade, Abbas helped them see better days.

Queues outside travel agencies, she recalls, were long. Labourers arriving from far-flung villages to large cities would often, for days, stay outside the agencies, awaiting last minute tickets to be handed over.

Abbas’s memories of life in days without computers are lucid.

She talks of times when tickets were handwritten and duplicated by carbon paper. They were handed over as broad rectangular passes to passengers.

“We had to write a lot,” she says, “anyone travelling had to give lot of details on passport, there were too many queries to be filled in and we could not make any errors,” she added.

Airlines then would reserve a certain number of tickets per month for agencies. The tickets (that resembled broad passes, filled by hand), recalls Abbas, were kept in safes and accounted for every day. There were also restrictions on the currency that travelers could carry with them.

From unskilled labourers to skilled IT professionals, as the world and the Indian economy progressed, so did the profile of the Indian traveler.

By the mid-1990s, American technology companies were hiring in copious numbers from India and Abbas was seeing more skilled labour travel to foreign lands.

At the same time, events closer home sowed seeds of disruption in the industry, when in 1991, the government decided to open up a closed economy. In 1994, the Indian government—that till then owned the country’s only domestic carrier Air India, repealed the Air Corporations Act (1953), making room for private airlines to launch more flights.

Even though liberalization in civil aviation industry began in 1986 with the introduction of air taxi system to boost tourism, air traffic boomed a decade later with more private carriers being allowed to ferry domestic and international travelers, according to information relayed by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), Government of India.

Further, by 1990, with the Open Skies Policy adopted by the Indian government that allowed private operators to begin operations in India.

As a result, number of passengers carried in the domestic sector increased from 15,000 in 1990 to more than 0.4 million in 1992, according to data sourced from PIB.

De-regulation of the sector following liberalization and more affordability in the hands of the Indian consumer, subsequently saw a deluge of airlines such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Emirates.

Abbas and her peers felt the impact of the changes. Job market suddenly opened up and salary structures revived.

“These airlines were paying two-three times more than what agencies were used to paying. More positions opened up—from ground staff to air-hostesses. But recruitment was only restricted to freshers.

By 1995, the industry was introduced to computers that helped print tickets, easing handwritten tasks.

Rapid economic progress also meant that more Indians harboured higher aspirations.

By mid and late 1990s, more changes ensued; days of the flourishing travel agencies were now numbered. By early 2000s, the Internet took over as bookings moved to portals such as (2000) and (2006). Agencies, as Abbas knew them, started to shrivel.

“From 9% commission per ticket, agents suddenly went empty-handed. Agencies, she recalls, diminished in size and number with “considerable downsizing.” Also, more job opportunities came about, with then new-age companies like BPOs paying more. Popularity of agencies faded, shops were shut and commissions fell.

In 2007 and at a monthly salary of Rs.15,000, Abbas too exited the industry. Her last job was a general sales agent for Saudia Airlines where she was a supervisor for a team of 10.

Today, fewer travel agencies exist and bookings are available to travelers on mobile apps.

But Abbas has fond memories of being part of the India that was.

Like a trip to Frankfurt in 1990 as part of perks of being in the travel industry. “It was nice, the airline service was good and the aircraft was big,” recalls Abbas.