The Republic of Air India

Everyone in India has a favourite Air India story—not an IndiGo story, not a SpiceJet or a Jet Airways story. And there is a reason for it


When Air India flies domestic routes between international airports, passengers are meant to hold on to their boarding pass—never mind that bits of the boarding passes are torn off when you enter the aircraft, and that increasingly these days they are a quarter of a printed A4 sheet that have an uncanny tendency to disappear on flights. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
When Air India flies domestic routes between international airports, passengers are meant to hold on to their boarding pass—never mind that bits of the boarding passes are torn off when you enter the aircraft, and that increasingly these days they are a quarter of a printed A4 sheet that have an uncanny tendency to disappear on flights. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

And this, may I inform you, is exactly how terrorists slip into our country.”

With that, the immigration officer returned to his desk, smug and convinced that he’d had the last word in an unseemly, ill-tempered and progressively loud row with me that seemed to go on forever in the middle of Indira Gandhi International Airport, surrounded by milling passengers who couldn’t give a toss about anything other than to get home—day before yesterday, if possible.

In fairness, the officer did have a point in that the row was holding up the immigration queue—but he had had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to prove his point.

Fish out terrorism in any argument, especially when there’s an audience around, and you know your opponents will have to hold their counsel.

But this was not his fault.

He had obviously had a very long day, and it was actually Air India, India’s national carrier, that had messed things up.

This column is about Air India, not about immigration officers.

Air India is in the news again.

As Mint reported this week, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is considering inducting banks as strategic investors in Air India, followed by a listing of the national airline, although privatization isn’t on the cards.

The plan is part of yet another attempt to turn around the airline by getting its lenders—a consortium of 19 banks—to convert a working capital debt of Rs28,000 crore into equity.

Its financial troubles mean that Air India, in recent years, has been unable to keep up with its private sector rivals, at least as far as inflight service is concerned.

Every Indian has a favourite Air India story, and it is rarely one soaked in kindness—this behemoth of the Indian skies has alienated the Indian flier in every possible way, it seems.

I flew Air India recently into Delhi. It was an internal flight as Air India flies some domestic routes to connect between international airports. I was sitting in row 7 and when it came to being served dinner, I anticipated one more replay of what has become my favourite Air India story over the years—that the crew invariably runs out of non-vegetarian meals when it reaches me.

I may be sitting in row 2 or 20—it doesn’t matter.

The chicken ends with me.

And so it happened on this flight. The carnivores of rows 1 to 6 apparently had dug into the meat and finished it all up. Usually, I let it go; but I decided to stand up for my non-vegetarian meal rights this time around.

“I’m sure you can find one if you look hard,” I suggested.

“No sir, I knew it even before we started serving,” she said with unbelievable candour.

That it would finish at row 7?

“Ask your colleagues,” I pressed.

“They don’t have any sir,” she said.

“Ask!” I replied.

And lo and behold, she returned within 30 seconds with a shiny meal tray, saying, “I found the last one for you, sir. You’re lucky.”

The last time such a miraculous outcome had followed my protestations, the excuse was: “Sir, I have spoken to the captain and he has agreed to give up his non-vegetarian meal for you.”

But this wasn’t the happy ending you’d imagine.

Not entirely unlike what follows the last meal, Indira Gandhi International Airport awaited my arrival.

When Air India flies domestic routes between international airports, passengers are meant to hold on to their boarding pass—never mind that bits of the boarding passes are torn off when you enter the aircraft, and that increasingly these days they are a quarter of a printed A4 sheet that have an uncanny tendency to disappear on flights.

On this flight (as with many others, to be honest), the crew failed to tell passengers to hold on to their boarding passes.

At immigration, all passengers on this domestic route were told to queue up at one particular counter.

After I had somehow traced my boarding pass, crumpled and squeezed somewhere in the corner of my bag, I was waved through to the immigration counter.

It was here that I noticed a fellow passenger in obvious distress, being unable to find her boarding pass.

She was told to go back down the queue, take the elevator and return to the first floor, where Air India staff would issue her a duplicate boarding pass, perhaps.

She was pleading with the immigration staff that she had her airline ticket.

“Isn’t this proof enough?” she asked.

“No madam,” replied the police officer at the counter. “Please go back upstairs.”

She was nearly in tears.

I asked the officer how it was fair as it was airline staff who had failed to inform passengers.

A passing member of a crew from a private airline stopped by to inform me that this is how things are and that he was sorry for the trouble.

“I blame Modi (Prime Minister Narendra Modi),” said a co-passenger.

Too loud, I thought—not helping. Sure enough, the desk officer at this point stood up, drew himself up to his full height and told me, “This is holding things up. This lady should go up to the first floor. Now. And this, may I inform you, is exactly how terrorists slip into our country.”

I had to withdraw. The passenger went up and later told me at departure that there was a pretty large crowd on the first floor, too—apparently boarding passes are easy to mislay. There she was asked to give her name, and an airline staffer pretty quickly found her on the passenger list and issued her a piece of paper, which she had to show the immigration officer back at the desk downstairs. He was, of course, irritated by now, and asked her for an additional proof of identity. She showed her driver’s licence and was able to—finally—leave Indira Gandhi International Airport.

Everyone in India has a favourite Air India story—not an IndiGo story, not a SpiceJet or a Jet Airways story. There is a reason for it.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1

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