The SMS beeped at 8am: “My result is 78% (in the BCom final examinations)!”
Since the day we met in one of the classrooms in the just-opened Kingfisher Training Academy (KTA), 20-year-old Hiral Chauhan has chosen to give away more than you’d expect or want to know: What she wore for her first interview, why her aunt never got to be an air hostess, how she won a national gold medal in Thai boxing, why she’s good at economics.
Not all of that is related to why she should be a flight attendant. “It’s been my dream. But I haven’t ever been inside a plane, can you imagine? I love the idea of getting paid to fly. And the money is so great now,” she tells me, at her family home, the evening before she got her exam results. After attending a few classes, she’s also beginning to comprehend that “being paid to fly” isn’t without a price: “Look good, smile, talk good, and you don’t know how you’ll be treated by customers.”
The Chauhan family lives in a housing society in Marine Lines, close to Zhaveri Bazaar, Mumbai’s bustling jewellery market, where her father, Vasudev O. Chauhan, is a diamond broker. Her mother, Anjana Vasudev Chauhan, is a beautician, who, Hiral says, has egged her on. Amused that a journalist is in her house to quiz her about her daughter’s long cherished ambition, Mrs Chauhan says: “See, in a way, it’s a hi-fi bai’s job. But she’s so keen and determined that I’m supporting her.” Hiral’s father nods in agreement.
The BCom graduate from South Mumbai’s Jai Hind College has hectic months ahead: Wake up at 6am, spend an hour dressing up (wearing her new formals and getting the make-up just right), travel an hour from Marine Lines to Andheri to be in class by 9am, return by 3pm and spend another hour in the evening at the gym (she needs to gain six kilos, according to Kingfisher’s height-weight specs).
All the students in that class of 20 may not be as dogged as Hiral, but she could probably speak for many graduates and college-goers in their early 20s who consider an airline job a trendy and lucrative career option. In the mid-1990s, those who couldn’t make it to college or flunked college became flight attendants—a mindset that a TV serial called Air Hostess, with Kitu Gidwani in the articulate and attractive lead role, marginally managed to change, but not for long. Through most of the 1990s, a flight attendant in India was synonymous with the sari-clad, unsmiling Indian Airlines hostesses until the younger, trendier attendants of Jet Airways and Damania Airlines changed that perception.
After a host of private airlines entered in 2005 and with airline companies beginning a consolidation process earlier this year, there has been a dramatic increase in the industry’s efforts to attract quality recruits. Andheri (West), the Mumbai suburb that teems with malls, acting schools, TV studios and vocational institutes, now has seven airline training schools—Indian Aviation Academy, Frankfinn, Flying Cats, Air Hostess Academy, Kingfisher Training Academy, Avalon Aviation Academy and the soon-to-be-opened Livewel Airlines Training Academy.
Says Firdaus Nariman, general manager, marketing, Livewel Aviation Services, “We felt that this is the right time for a training institute because young people are looking at the aviation industry as
a very promising career sector and there’s a huge demand for airline staff.”
KTA is by far the most expensive in the country—the fee for a six-month course is Rs1 lakh. In April 2007, owner of the erstwhile Damania Airlines, Parvez Damania, launched his Excellence Aviation Academy (EAA) in four cities—Bhopal, Jabalpur, Gwalior and Kolkata—with plans to open in 10 more small towns across India by the end of 2007. At Frankfinn, the largest school, the number of students coming in every quarter has gone up by about 35% in 2006-07.
Within a week of its May launch, KTA enrolled 110 students from the 300 initial applicants, of whom 96 are from Mumbai—mostly girls, and all of them either graduates or about to graduate. The school turns on its head the traditional belief that most flight attendants come from small towns. Says Kunal Vasudeva, KTA’s head of projects and business development: “After Mumbai, we plan to go to other metros, because we’re looking at students who have an urban upbringing, with good communications skills.”
So, the Social Attributes class at KTA focuses entirely on “decorum, posture and image-building”. At a two-hour class we learnt that non-verbal communication makes 93% of your personality, followed by voice tone, body language and, finally, words (a minuscule 7%). That there are roughly a dozen kinds of smiles. That “grace” depends on your body weight and the ability to cultivate the correct posture. The teachers, Girish and Natalia, are seasoned hospitality industry professionals and their lectures were backed by slide shows, interactive skills and humour.
Next week, the same batch of students met at the Christine Valmy Aesthetics School for their grooming classes. The boys finished in a day, and the girls went through a three-day boot camp. Each of them got a make-up kit, and the training began. Clean-up, toning and make-up took a day and haircare took another. I joined them on the third day, when they were evaluated. It was a room that had mirrors of all shapes and sizes on tables, on the walls and in nondescript corners. There was pin drop silence, as the girls worked on their cheek bones and eyes with brushes of all sizes for the final test. Questions from the students varied from “Should I iron my hair only from inside out?” to “What shade of lipstick should I wear since I have thin lips?” Finally, after the trainer met each one and minutely inspected their hair and face, it appeared that only three to four of the 20 had the perfect look for a Kingfisher flight attendant.
While Kingfisher classes are intensive and attentive to students’ needs, I was at a loss at a Frankfinn class. More students, less questions and the lecture seemed like a rapid reader in cabin crew behaviour—“Know your PI (Passenger Information) list, be extra careful to first riders, don’t chew gum, smile.
There are about 10 classes every day at Frankfinn’s largest centre in Mumbai next to the Andheri railway station. The students range from call centre employees to college-goers to some who have just finished school.
A counselling session for Frankfinn aspirants and their parents involved sitting inside an outdated Airbus, built sometime in the 1970s, long before these aspiring flight attendants were born. “Make an announcement like this,” they were told, “this is how you open and close the door, this is how you have to walk down the aisle.” An eager student asked, “What’s this button for?” “What about that?” asked another. This flummoxed the instructor, who said: “Well, you don’t need to know that because you’ll be working with new planes.”
Frankfinn also doesn’t have a rigorous selection criteria, as a result of which many of its diploma-holders are yet to land a job. Rakesh Agarwal, managing director, Frankfinn, explains: “It is true that 30 to 35% of our students do not get jobs immediately after completing their diploma because many of them want to finish college and most of them want to get flight attendant jobs when they’re not cut out for it. But we have a written agreement with students before they’re enrolled that not all of them can be placed in cabin crew jobs.”
So what exactly about the aviation industry is attracting the under-25s, the majority of the country’s population? The first walk-in counselling session of KTA at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, advertised in a Mumbai daily in March 2007, offered some clues.
Abhilasha Sarin, 21, a computer science graduate from Pune, travelled from Pune with her mother to be there. They walked from counter to counter, asking questions such as “Does everybody get a certificate or will you flunk people also?” and “What is the height requirement?” She had been dreading the answer to her last question. She is 5’1” and the minimum requirement for a flight attendant is 5’2” for women and 5’7” for men. By the end of her interaction with the Kingfisher staff, Abhilasha had almost made up her mind that she would go for it—if not an air hostess, maybe ground staff, although she was told that in Kingfisher Airlines, a flight attendant’s salary starts from Rs35,000, and depending on yearly evaluations can go up to Rs50,000 in two years. Any job in cargo, ticketing or security is in the range of Rs10,000 to Rs25,000. “There are thousands of computer science graduates like me and that too, I’m not from the best institute. So my job prospects as a programmer are not that great. I prefer airlines to call centres,” Abhilasha said.
At the launch ceremony of KTA on 25 May 2007, Abhilasha drove once again from Pune. UB Group chairman Vijay Mallya inspected the eight-storey structure, inaugurating each floor, as his convoy of deputies gave him the low-down on how his vision was being executed. Abhilasha watched from a distance, her skirt and blazer perfectly hugging her body, her hair neatly tied into a French roll, as if she was already on the job. But finally, when she was told she could not be an air hostess, she backed out.
Most students say the new salary structures, the prospect of flying all over the country or the world, and the glamour associated with being an air hostess have determined their choice of career. Salaries in Jet Airways start at Rs25,000, Kingfisher Airlines at Rs30,000 to Rs35,000, while the rest are in the range of Rs15,000 to Rs25,000.
But those in the business of grooming are here for the profit. Mallya, who has already invested Rs10 crore in the academy, says: “After Kingfisher Airlines sets new standards of in-flight and ground level customer service, it’s obvious employers in the entire customer service and hospitality sector would prefer to hire people trained by us. And I believe youngsters would be smart enough to realize that. I’m confident of getting at least 1,000 professionals out in the market, trained according to our standards, in the first year.”
The other new entrant, Parvez Damania, is staying away from big cities, partly to sidestep competition and partly because he is convinced the aviation industry’s next big stop is the smaller industrial city. His Damania Airlines was one of the first in India to introduce in-flight service standards different from what domestic flyers were familiar with—sari-clad, no-nonsense, Indian plain Janes as flight attendants. “After the number of airlines companies and aircraft have mushroomed, there’s enormous pressure on airports in big cities. We still have one domestic airport in all the metros. The smaller cities near the metros are bound to have airports, because the real economic boom is here. And staff for these airports have to be hired locally,” he says. In the first week itself, EAA in Bhopal had 50 students, 32 in Jabalpur and 20 in Gwalior.
Perhaps if they had the option, a lot of them would come to the city. A growing number of students in Mumbai’s flying schools have shifted to the city from small towns nearby. Twenty-three-year-old Bhagirath Singh Gohil, son of an assistant sub-inspector of police and a schoolteacher, finished his Masters in English this year from Anand University, Gujarat. In the last two years, he appeared for many interviews for a flight attendant’s job, but without success. He has now joined KTA and is living with a friend in Borivali, hoping to make Mumbai his home after six months. “My education will help me in this job. I have a good knowledge of English and it will help when I travel to foreign countries,” says Bhagirath, in broken English.
Chandigarh-based fashion choreographer Priyanka Khosla started Flying Cats a year ago, after spending eight years in the fashion industry. The school is part of her grooming and finishing school, Cats, which mostly attracts young women from all over Punjab. “English-speaking city girls today don’t need to be taught how to talk and walk. I try to make my girls as confident as models and I offer classes in salsa, yoga and meditation along with communication skills so that their confidence comes from within,” says Khosla.
A seasoned flight attendant, and author of the book, 10 Steps to Become an Air Hostess, Vijaya Lukose, has similar thoughts: “Training schools can only help those from small towns, educated in vernacular schools. Ultimately, you learn on the job.” Bangalore-based Lukose is the head of in-flight services at Air Deccan. Her book came out in 2003 when, after interviewing many candidates, she felt that girls from small places had the ambition, but not the necessary guidance. The book costs Rs125, and according to its publisher, BPI Publishing, more than 1,000 copies were sold in its first year.
Lubna Kadri, who co-owns the Indian Aviation Academy with husband Rizwan Kadri, entered the training sector at the same time that Lukose’s book came out. She says that the number of students at their school has risen by almost 45% in the last six to eight months. Kadri also spots a new pattern: “A lot of my students are call centre workers. They’re looking at airlines as an exciting, well-paying option.” Both former professionals, the Kadris emphasize the grooming aspect as well as working knowledge of paramedics and swimming, as do other institutes, except KTA.
KTA focuses entirely on customer service skills and the airline hires only women as flight attendants. As one of the students in the Social Attributes class told me, “If you can speak well and if you’re slim and fair, there’s a good chance of making it at Kingfisher.” Going by the kind of students that KTA has chosen to train, that’s not a far-fetched conclusion.
Experts in the industry believe that training schools are only likely to proliferate. The next big step would be pilot training institutes, an area that’s yet to boom—there’s an even greater dearth of pilots in India than there is of trained in-flight and ground staff. Mallya has earmarked Rs200 crore for a pilot training academy in Navi Mumbai, scheduled to open by the end of the year. Off Indian shores, both Damania’s Dubai Aviation Academy, and the Kadris’ flying school at Ras-Al-Khaimah (also in the United Arab Emirates) are in the offing by the end of 2007. Kapil Kaul, CEO, Indian sub-continent and Middle East, Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, says that since 2006, Indian airline companies have acquired about 400 aircraft and as of now, there’s a shortage of 5,000 pilots. Double that number for the airline staff required. “But the problem is that training schools are trying to cash in on the boom and churning out people who are not cut out to be airline professionals,” says Kaul.
Even among those who do land the coveted flight attendant’s job, some have tasted the worst quite early. Carol (name changed on request), 24, finished school and got a diploma from NIIT before joining Frankfinn. In 2006, she got a job with Air Deccan and soon realized that her dream job was turning into a nightmare. “No matter how much you try to please your guests on board, ultimately, Indians don’t know how to treat air hostesses well. I have got screamed at for no fault, but had to take everything with a smile,” she says. Besides, Carol couldn’t cope with the competition from colleagues for added incentives that the airline offers to cabin crew members who can convince customers to buy food items on board.
But for one Carol, there are many like Hiral Chauhan.
Before saying goodbye to the Chauhan family that evening, I asked Hiral, “Do you think you’ll make it?”
“I’m pretty sure,” she said, “maybe my English pronunciation needs to improve.”
I also got to know that she had gone for an interview with Kingfisher a few months ago. She was told she had what it takes, except for a few unpolished edges, such as her diction.
“Why don’t you think of joining the Kingfisher Academy?” they asked her. Which she did.
Hiral didn’t want to leave anything to chance; she has to fly one day.