Airlines spend so much money advertising facilities that are more or less identical that it makes me weep. No matter what they tell you in the ads, the truth is that no domestic airline has the power to offer very much more than the other.
The planes themselves are nearly always the same: either Boeing 737s or Airbus 320s. The seats are made by one of a handful of manufacturers and are much the same (the honourable exception is the legroom on Kingfisher First Class which is truly exceptional; at the back of the aircraft, however, you crouch forward holding your knees, just as you do on every other airline).
Not only is the food uniformly disgusting, but it comes from one of only three flight kitchens: Taj, Oberoi or Ambassador. So, even if the airline tries to be inventive with the menu, the quality will always be the same. If a Taj chef is cooking an omelette which will be consumed many hours later, how does it matter to him whether it will be served on Jet, Kingfisher or Indian Airlines?
What then can a domestic airline do to try and be different?
Well, some carriers have tried to brand themselves with the personality of their owners.
On Kingfisher, they show a slickly made film in which Vijay Mallya tells you that he is personally responsible for your comfort. And though Naresh Goyal has stopped short of doing that, he has had to shed his low profile and is now a much more visible presence in the media. Both men are, in any case, personally obsessive about the details of their operation. The first time I flew Kingfisher, I was surprised to get a call from Vijay the next day. Had I enjoyed the flight? How did he know I had flown his airline, I countered. Well, he said, he had the Club Class manifesto for all his flights mailed to him every day, no matter where in the world he was.
In the early days of Jet, I once found myself on a flight with Naresh Goyal. When we got off at Chennai airport, I told him to go on ahead because I had check-in baggage. No problem, he said politely, and stayed to chat till my bag arrived. I thought nothing of it till I got a call from Jet’s New Delhi airport manager the next day. The chairman had noticed, the manager said, that my bag had not been carried in the Club Class container and had taken a while to arrive. They were now conducting an inquiry into this lapse so could I please provide details of who had checked me in.
But despite this obsessiveness, there’s one thing they haven’t tried yet. And I think I know what it is.
My suggestion is as follows: Get your staff to shut up. There is nothing more annoying to the regular flyer than the steady stream of gibberish that both cockpit and cabin crew spout throughout the flight.
Let’s start with the delivery. If the hostess can do the Hindi announcement properly, then she won’t manage the English one. If pilots had the ability to hold forth on public address systems, then they would be on radio. I am fed up of fake American accents, of phoney cheeriness and, in the case of expatriate pilots, of them forgetting which country they are in.
On a recent flight to Chennai, the pilot began his announcements with Salaam Aleikum, which I thought was a victory for Indian secularism. The truth was less elevating: he had been hired from the Middle East and still made the announcements he had been taught in his last job.
Then there’s the PA system itself. It astonishes me that airlines that spend millions on video equipment cannot invest in better PA systems.
Half the time the volume’s wrong, the sound is tinny and the net effect is to set your teeth on edge.
Next, there’s the number of announcements themselves. You get the welcome announcement (“We apologize for this delay, which was due to the late arrival of this aircraft”—yes, but why was it late in arriving to begin with?) in two languages. Then you get the demonstration, a singularly pointless exercise, especially the bit about the life jacket, as most domestic flights rarely fly over the sea. And no life jacket is going to be of much help if your plane crashes into a mountain.
Then, once you are airborne, you get a new series of bilingual announcements telling you that the captain has switched off the seat belt sign (yes, of course, he has; we are not blind, we can see that) and warning you that you can’t smoke in the toilets (actually, you can’t smoke anywhere in the plane, so why single out the loo?).
Once this nonsense ends and you are ready to take a nap, the pilot comes on to give you masses of unnecessary and useless information. Do you care what the temperature at 35,000ft is? Are you likely to poke your head out of the window to check? Does it matter that “our route will take us over the city of Pratapgarh”? Do you really want him to recite the names of every member of cabin crew?
By now, you have woken up. Which is just as well because the promotional announcements start. They will push their frequent flyer programme. They will tell you about the new routes the airline has introduced. They will announce competitions to win TV sets. And God alone knows what else.
At the end of this barrage of non-stop gibberish you will feel rather as you do when some jerk calls you on your mobile to try and sell you car insurance or to offer you a loan. Except that you can tell the jerk to get lost or you can simply hang up. But here, at 35,000ft, there’s no escape from the announcements. You are at the mercy of cold-callers. You are in call centre hell.
So, Vijay, Naresh and all you hot shot aviation tycoons, here’s my humble suggestion. When we pay you thousands of rupees to fly from Mumbai to New Delhi, we pay as much for the experience as we do for the journey itself.
Do us a favour. Tell your staff that we love them dearly. But can they please, please, shut up?
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org