For nearly as long as I can remember—from the early 1970s at least—we have taken it for granted that Indians do not know how to run airlines. When foreign visitors came to our country we warned them about Indian Airlines. The flights will be late, we said. Expect the most minimal standards of service.
When we needed to travel abroad we steered clear of Air India. Everything about the airline was wrong. There were the delays of course, the engineering failures and the pilots who stalked off at the slightest pretext. But there were also the interminable queues at check-in, the rude ground staff, and the crap in-flight facilities.
I have to say that while I conceded that there was something to the criticism, I was never an Air India hater. It seemed almost unpatriotic to desert your national carrier. Even through its worst phases, it remained my airline of choice. But virtually nobody agreed with me. Rich friends laughed at the crappiness of Air India first class. Others preferred to fly European airlines to London, even if it meant changing planes in Paris, Frankfurt or Vienna rather than take one of Air India’s direct flights.
BA’s decline is indicative of the collapse of service standards in Europe
Each time I attempted to defend Air India, I was always pointed in the direction of British Airways (BA). Now, that was a proper airline! It was always on time! And the first class, my God, that was amazing!
I have never been a BA fan. The ground handling is on par with Air India’s, the in-flight service is cold and the airline truly does not give a damn about about the Indian passenger—that, at least, is my experience. Sure, the first class is terrific (or it was when I last flew it five years ago) but at those prices (up to 40% more than Air India) it bloody well better be.
Over the last year or so, I’ve noticed that even diehard BA loyalists are beginning to reconsider their positions. This will come as no surprise to Brits who treat their airline with the derision we reserve for our own Air India (such phrases as “national disgrace” are routinely employed) but Indians have—till recently, at least—remained more loyal than the Queen.
But BA has actually got pretty damned awful of late. It has learnt nothing from Virgin where Richard Branson’s PR makes up for the airline’s shortcomings and it has the worst PR of any airline flying to India (with the possible exception of one or two African airlines and those that fly the flags of former Soviet republics). Its PR in the UK is even worse: Just read the British papers.
Over the last few months, it has been hit by disaster after disaster. There’s been industrial action. It has been revealed as the airline that loses more pieces of baggage than many of its competitors. And then, there’s been the calamitous opening of the new Terminal Five at Heathrow, an unmitigated disaster from which the airline’s image will take years to recover. Not only were flights cancelled, bags lost etc. but BA has also been accused of misleading passengers about their statutory rights (such as hotel rooms for the night) in the midst of all this chaos.
So phenomenal is the growth in air traffic to and from India that the decline in BA’s image will take a while to reflect in the load factors. But I’m sure it will. Because Indians now have indigenous choices—other than Air India.
Anyone who’s flown BA (or for that matter, any European carrier) on a short to medium haul flight will know that our own domestic airlines are so, so much better. Club class on European routes is a joke; it makes Kingfisher’s version seem like a private jet in contrast.
Now that our domestic airlines are flying abroad, the Indian alternatives are far more compelling. I don’t know a single BA loyalist who does not prefer Jet’s club class to London. Air India’s non-stop first class (which differs significantly from its regular offering) is truly outstanding. And now, even BA’s formerly loyal first class clientele is beginning to defect. I know of at least two hardcore millionaire BA-types who flew Jet first class to London and said they were ready to try a homegrown alternative again. Once Kingfisher starts flying abroad (in August or so, I reckon), BA loyalists will find that they have one other alternative.
What makes the difference? Partly it is that BA is going through a bad time. All over Europe, the airline industry is in a state of decay: Alitalia, KLM and Air France are only a little better off.
But much of it has to do with Indian skill and talent. Stay at a deluxe Indian hotel and compare the experience to a London or New York hotel of equivalent stature and the Indian hotel will nearly always be better. This is not as much of a big deal as it might sound. We’ve always known that the average standards at deluxe hotels in East Asia are superior to Europe. It’s just that we treated India as being different.
So it is with airlines. If I tell you that Singapore Airlines is better than BA, you will not be surprised. Nor will you be astonished to learn that Thai is better than Alitalia or that Malaysian is better than KLM. It’s just that—till recently—we judged India’s capacity to run a world-class airline on the basis of Air India. Now that we have other indigenous alternatives, we realize that we can be just as good as rest of Asia.
Could it be a government versus private sector thing? I’m sure that’s part of the reason. But it’s not the full story. BA is private; it is hard to believe it was even worse when it was state-owned. And privatization of India’s airports has actually led to a decline in service standards: If you were to take the owners of Delhi’s international airport to the departure lounge at midnight, they would risk being lynched by passengers. Similarly, Heathrow has become the worst airport in the world because of the greed of its private owners.
So, I don’t think it’s about nationalized industries. It’s about cultures and timing. BA’s decline is symptomatic of the collapse of service standards in Europe. And as for India, well, our time has finally come.
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org