Living the high life

A former air hostess with Air India recounts how liberalization changed the Indian aviation sector


Suneeta Sodhi Kanga worked as an air hostess with Air India from 1988 to 1996. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/ Mint
Suneeta Sodhi Kanga worked as an air hostess with Air India from 1988 to 1996. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/ Mint

New Delhi: In the India of 1990s, flying was an experience only a few could afford. It was every bit royal. Remember the Maharajah, Air India’s moustachioed and turbaned mascot in a red coat? People used to dress up, some hired limousines; women came in high heels, wore jewellery, and carried the best of bags. Going to the airport was an occasion.

“Even the first-class service was so grand. It was like seven-stars. The best champagnes, the best cheeses, lobsters were served. We used to give a personalized service. Table cloths were laid, the table setting was done. There were Damask napkins, Royal Doulton crockery, cutlery from best of places in the world. Even things like salt and pepper shakers were kept on each table,” says Suneeta Sodhi Kanga, who worked as an air hostess with Air India from 1988 to 1996.

This was also the time when air hostesses used to turn heads and their lifestyle was emulated by many young Indian women. Being an air hostess during the 1980s and 1990s was different from being an air hostess now. To start with, not everyone aspired to become an air hostess. Those who made it were envied. It was an era of few airlines, more luxury, and for the air hostesses, it meant an entry into a world of glamour.

“What was there not to like about it? We were young, we were earning very good salaries, and we were travelling around the world for free. I beg your pardon; we were not travelling for free, we were paid to travel around the world. We were staying in five-star hotels. Limousines used to pick us up,” says Kanga.

In the beginning, air hostesses were mostly Parsis, Anglo-Indians or Catholics, but by the time Kanga joined, it had started becoming more inclusive.

Kanga was six when she knew she wanted to be an air hostess—more so because she was fascinated by the glamourous life of her mother’s friend who was an air hostess in Indian Airlines. When she passed Class X, instead of going for vacations like other classmates, she decided to learn French. She knew an additional language would help. The year she graduated, she joined a five-star hotel. There, she learnt the art of sari tying, grooming and customer service. Within a month, an advertisement by Air India appeared in a national newspaper and she applied and got through.

“For me, it was travel and glamour. I didn’t even think about the money, till I actually got my first salary. We used to earn very well. Apparently, our salaries then were the same as the MD (managing director) of a company. The first flight I went on, I earned Rs.1,000 per day—that after my Rs.1,200 per month salary in the hotel. It was huge for me. And let’s not forget that we were being paid in foreign currency,” she says.

At a time when India sold Halo shampoo, Charmis cream, and limited variety of fashion products, Kanga was buying brands from all over the world. “I used to buy a moisturizer from Paris, my shampoo from Tokyo, my conditioner used to be from Sydney. I used to buy a perfume in each flight. Can you imagine? Now, I buy one perfume a year.”

When Kanga joined, Air India, Indian Airlines and Vayudoot dominated the skies. Currently, India has some 10 domestic airlines. The passenger profile was different, the profile of an air hostess was different, and the choice of airlines was limited.

“It was definitely elitist. It was not common like it is now. People didn’t have that much disposable income to travel,” says Kanga. “Mostly, it was the non-resident Indians and business class people who travelled by air. After the Gulf boom, international flights were full of labourers travelling to the Gulf for blue-collar jobs.”

Over time, and even when she was there, Kanga says, as the economic growth of the country created the new Indian middle class, women from small towns, from across castes and classes, chose this profession.

This was also the time when India liberalized its airline sector—giving space for the private sector and slowly ending the monopoly of state-run airlines, and simultaneously, the disposable income of people increased.

Initially liberalized in 1994, the airline sector in India has seen annual passenger air traffic grow from 7.5 million domestic passengers in 1993 to 81 million domestic passengers in 2015.

In 2003-04, low-cost airlines arrived, with fares half those of full-service carriers. The entry of these no-frill airlines was an entirely different experience, and since then, flying stopped being a luxury.

With the liberalization of the aviation industry in India, several job profiles opened up. From customer support, ticket reservation, regulation of traffic to cargo reservations, the aviation sector now offers plenty of job opportunities.

But Kanga says the glamour quotient associated with the job of an air hostess is no longer there.

“The brief that Air India gave us was to anticipate the need of the passenger. He shouldn’t be asking you for anything. You don’t see that anymore. Earlier, this was not just another job. A lot of focus was on glamour part—the flying models as we were called. Now, there are a lot of budget constraints. The level of people they are hiring has also gone down. Cabin crew doesn’t stay in the same kind of hotels as we used to... there is not enough rest... again, because they are saving on money,” she says.

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