Press world apart

I used to roll my eyes whenever I boarded Air India One and had to fly with the Indian prime minister to some corner of the world. The 747 is about 15 years old and feels it. Whenever I’ve attended a Group of 20 summit or some similar global powwow Air India has always stood out – for its shabbiness. The white paint has yellowed with age and perhaps high altitude ultraviolet rays. The coat of paint is patchy in parts. East Asian countries are among the shiniest and sharpest.

And the airplane’s insides are nothing to be proud of either. The press is lucky to get business class seats — but they don’t bend backwards. The video monitors are from a previous tech age and the movie choice limited. Not that you have too much time for such things. However you get more food than you know what to do with. But the seats begin to tell when you fly really long and hard — I did 22000 kms in Air India One in June last year and my back still aches at the thought.

But I am reassured after reading The Secretary, a journalist’s account of travelling with Hillary Clinton when she half-ran United States foreign policy. Her aircraft, Special Air Mission or SAM, is 20 years old and actually breaks down at times. And the journalists who fly with her get a mix of economy and business class seats — but mostly the former.

On the other hand, SAM being the carrier of a superpower’s representative had a lot more news packed in its itinerary. For one thing, Clinton almost always had to keep changing her flight plans, adding countries and new leaders at the last minute because of some crisis that needed Washington’s intervention. Because they only carried food that had been loaded and cleared from home base in the US, this sometimes meant they began running out of food. I can’t imagine that in Air India One. One waddles off after the plane lands.

SAM is old because the US Congress is unwilling to allot money for a new one. India has a similar sensibility that its leadership should serve in a manner that leaves as light a touch on the taxpayer as possible. The idea that the plane of a minister should represent the wealth and power of the state isn’t overriding among democracies. Rather they should represent the strength of popular sovereignty over the government. So I suppose I should be pleased — and I am. And I tolerate the backaches and so on that follow. But I do think India can still afford one coat of paint on its prime minister’s flight. And a younger plane may save on fuel in the long run.

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