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New Delhi: For the flight attendants, the tide in the fortunes of Kingfisher Airlines Ltd was measured in the details. The first things to go were the eye masks.

“One by one, they stopped (giving passengers freebies) such as masks, toilet packs and food," says a former stewardess at the airline. “These are small things, but they make a big difference to the traveller...after a point it became like a low-cost carrier."

“And we were not trained for that kind of service," she adds, as she fixes her hair and smoothes the creases out of her shirt—a habit that has stayed with her since her days in the cabin crew of Vijay Mallya’s troubled airline. An airline that, since the end of 2010, has become an increasingly thankless place to work at.

Their training had always set the Kingfisher staff apart from the rest. Each member of the cabin crew was handpicked by Mallya himself, says the Delhi-born stewardess, who worked for the airline for six years from 2006 to 2012, but did not want to be named for this story. “Kingfisher did treat us like kings," she says.

These days, the story is rather different. With total liabilities of more than $2 billion ( 11,100 crore), Kingfisher is operating on a skeleton schedule, with its flying fleet cut to one-fourth, half its pilots gone and the lowest market share of any airline in India. Earlier this month, the airline reported its net loss had widened to 650.78 crore for the quarter ended 30 June from a 263.53 crore net loss a year earlier.

A majority of the remaining staff has not been paid salaries since February and earlier this month, a number of employees, including engineers and pilots, reported sick to protest against the delays. In a controversial response, Mallya wrote a letter to the striking employees entitled “Dedication and Commitment", berating his staff for what he described as their “misguided" actions and suggesting that “if a section of our colleagues feel that their actions are justified and that they know best, they can elect to leave our company".

Mallya’s personal affront at the rather predictable actions of his employees was striking: “Why should I spend every day to keep our airline afloat if the actions of our own colleagues lead to loss of guest confidence and lower income by cancellation of flights or low load factors that result from uncertainty?" asked the beleaguered chief, who has made repeated claims that he will find a way to infuse capital into the airline, spurred by the elusive hope of foreign investment.

“We have continuing issues with the tax authorities with frozen bank accounts," he continued. “As if that is not bad enough, some of our own colleagues are ensuring, by their actions, that our revenue prospects fall down further due to shaky guest confidence and poor load factors."

If the response seemed excessively sentimental, it’s worth remembering that from the outset, Mallya immersed himself in the brand’s image. In the airline’s salad days, the sense of autocracy was palpable. Mallya appeared in person on the in-flight safety video to make a welcome speech: “Welcome aboard Kingfisher Airlines," he announced, from the small screen. “From the day we’ve started flying I have tried to create the finest experience for you, and bring back the element of style in travel. Each member of your cabin crew has been hand-picked by me and I have instructed them to treat you as a guest in my own home."

The stewardess remembers this aspect of her training fondly. “We were taught to conduct ourselves well in front of the guests and give them the best possible service that many other airlines don’t encourage. For them they are just passengers, for us they were guests," she says.

The whiff of privilege that Mallya imbued into the brand seemed to pay off. Aditi Dasgupta, a stewardess who has been happily employed with IndiGo airlines for three years, admitted that there was a time when she wished only to work for Kingfisher. “They have an air about themselves and I think most people envy that," she says, referring to Mallya’s cabin crew. “They started as an airline with world-class quality, at a time when most airlines were beginning to go low cost and that was the biggest selling point."

Back in January 2006, a year after the brand was launched, the Kingfisher stewardess accompanied a friend to the company’s office in Connaught Place in central Delhi for an interview. On impulse, she also filled out an application and was called for an interview and offered a job. “I had never even thought about it. It was completely unplanned. I remember being excited and unsure," she says.

“Exciting"—she reflects, becoming silent for a moment—“I always enjoyed flying and we were very well taken care of. We were given a lot of perks. That is one thing I miss the most."

Training at Kingfisher comprised most of the skills one would pick up at a finishing school. Aside from the regular instructions that all airlines carry out on safety and evacuation procedures, Kingfisher flight attendants underwent voice training and elocution lessons, according to the stewardess. They were taught to do their own make-up and hair. They underwent crash courses on the details of the in-flight menu, personalizing each passenger’s meal.

To Dasgupta, the staff at Kingfisher always seemed to have the upper hand. They appeared to get all the nicest passengers who wouldn’t bicker about the small issues. Their benefits were far better than those offered by most airlines, and that meant that a lot of people vied for those jobs.

The stewardess started off flying three times a week, usually with a layover at night. Her usual circuit was Delhi to Mumbai and Bangalore, because “unlike other circuits, these passengers do not call us unnecessarily and are easier to serve", she says. “Initially, it was really good. We would stay in five-star hotels when we travelled abroad and we would be given enough money to roam around. Even when we were under training, we were paid full salary." In the early days, she bragged about travelling to Dubai, Colombo and Kathmandu to her friends, who envied her lavish lifestyle. While Mallya had become known as the King of Good Times, his employees were garnering a similar combination of admiration and envy. But the biggest attraction for the stewardess was flying internationally. Her face lights up when she begins to describe the thrill of going abroad. “Flying international was a great experience, I was very upset when it stopped," she says. Kingfisher ended its international flight schedule in April, in an attempt to staunch some of its losses.

After the business first hit turbulence in 2010, the airline made minor cutbacks, moving its staff into guest houses instead of hotels and reducing allowances for in-flight attendants. But the management did not lay off anyone, reassuring the crew of their places in the company. “Basically, there were shortages," says the stewardess. “Things were stopped in first class, and there were cutbacks in the value-added services. Eventually, there was a cut-down on food also and all non-vegetarian meals were discontinued. We started getting food trays equivalent to the number of passengers, whereas earlier we always had food in surplus."

And there were no more five-star hotels for the cabin crew. A hint of disappointment in her tone, the hostess described the guest houses in both Bangalore and Mumbai that replaced the hotels they’d stayed in earlier. “In Bangalore, we usually stayed at the Taj hotel on MG Road and so we could go to the pubs and shops at night—the guest houses were not so central, but they gave us cabs quite often so we managed."

As it turned out, these privations were minor, compared with what would come next.

The shocking thing about Kingfisher’s nosedive, according to Dasgupta, was that no one in her part of the industry saw it coming, especially given that the airline was backed by such a successful liquor business. “With other airlines, you never know who the owner is," she says. “But here Mallya made sure he was never scarce, which boosts the image of the airline, and when you know of the owner’s tastes and businesses, you feel more assured."

In 2011, Kingfisher’s market share began to slip. From holding the second spot with 20% of the market share in April 2011, the airline had dropped to fifth place by November with just 14%, ahead only of budget carrier GoAirlines (India) Ltd, according to analysis by the Centre for Aviation. During this time, the airline became increasingly mired in debt and salaries were stalled several times, resulting in staff strikes. When Kingfisher failed to pay its dues earlier this year, the service tax department in Mumbai froze some 40 of its bank accounts, and pilots and other airline staff struck again, demanding salaries. The latest data from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation showed the airline’s share of domestic fliers had dropped to just 4.2% this June.

Initially, the stewardess and her colleagues, kept in the dark by the management, relied on the information they got from news reports. Soon the cabin crew started asking the management about the repercussions the situation might have on their jobs. “When we asked them, they told us that no one would lose their jobs, but that there might be delays in salary," she says. “That scared a lot of people."

Kamana Kela was one of them. Kela left her job as a stewardess for Kingfisher late last year; the atmosphere had become too toxic, she says, when salaries were not being paid. “No one was happy, I moved to Emirates since I had to earn a living, and a lot of my friends left with me," Kela adds.

With more flights being cancelled each day, it was evident that disaster loomed. “As the financial situation of the airline worsened, the quality of service began to suffer," says the stewardess quoted in the first instance. For her, the slump was difficult to handle. It became increasingly difficult to gauge the extent of the damage and the impact it would have on the staff. For those who could not depend on their families for money, not being paid for nearly six months meant they had no alternative.

“A lot of people who had to send money home or had to manage their own finances had to leave the organization," says the stewardess. “Salary was always a concern and so people started leaving. Since they had worked with a brand like Kingfisher, they had better offers."

Still, even as the business failed, a lot of people held on to their jobs in the hope that things would turn around, according to the stewardess. She was lucky that her family could continue to support her. Such was their confidence in the brand that they still saw Kingfisher as one of the best companies to work for, and maybe they will again, she says.

In light of the most recent twist in the plot—Mallya’s threat to halt his efforts to save the airline if pilots and other staff do not return to work—that confidence seems to be waning. It has certainly been received with very little sympathy outside the airline. Kela thinks that Mallya’s letter was in bad taste. “If he is trying to motivate the employees, then this is not the way to do it," she says. “If he wants people to work, he has to pay them. They are not indebted to him in any way and so it is perfectly all right to not work if one is not being paid."

Perhaps she underestimates the sense of fealty that Mallya has been able to inspire in some of his employees. Although the stewardess has now left the airline for personal reasons, she has an abiding loyalty to the brand. “When the situation stabilizes, the company will be as popular as it was and people will come back wanting to work there again," she says. Her erstwhile boss will be hoping so, too.

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