Indian Con Air
I have spent the last few weeks travelling out of Delhi – much of them in the South – and am taken aback by the level of anger and outrage felt by middle-class Indians against the country’s airlines.
In Kerala, Air-India is seen as the big villain. Each day the newspapers carry more and more stories of flights cancelled. I flew from Mangalore to Mumbai with a South Indian family who were tense about making their connection to Delhi. It turned out that they held confirmed bookings on Air-India but were turned away at the counter on the grounds that a smaller plane than expected had arrived in Bangalore. So, many passengers were told to travel on other airlines even if this meant that their connecting time would be too short or that they risked not getting to their destinations at all.
The previous week, the Kerala papers had been full of horror stories about Air-India Express, the subsidiary that handles Gulf traffic.
Flight after flight was delayed without any explanations being offered. Then, if there was bad weather over say, Cochin, the flight would be diverted to some other airport. The pilots would walk off saying that their FDTL (Flight Duty Time Limitation) was over. The passengers would then be stranded for hours because Air-India (which is not short of pilots provided that their time is skilfully managed) had not bothered to arrange for back-up crew. Ground staff would wash their hands off the situation, the passengers would get no food and no information would be provided for hours.
Eventually, the inevitable happened. Passengers stormed the cockpit of one aircraft. The pilot pressed the hijack button, a full security alert was launched and the police were called in. Now, Kerala politicians are demanding inquiries into the shocking state of affairs at Air-India Express. And frankly, they are right.
While the anger over Air-India has been confined to the South in recent weeks, I think it is only a matter of time before it spills over to the rest of the country. I’ve been shocked by the callous disregard for passengers (even at the Executive Class counters, where people are paying three times the normal fare) demonstrated by Air-India check-in staff at Bangalore and Delhi airports. In each case, an employee of the old Indian Airlines has later appeared to make amends.
There is nothing that the old-timers can do, I’ve been told. Ground handling is out-sourced to other companies who hire semi-literate staff. This staff pays no attention to the Air-India chain of command and cares nothing about the airline’s reputation. Most of the girls at check-in are already looking for new jobs at call centres so they don’t really give a damn about the airline or its passengers.
While the Air-India drama has been raging in the South there has been nationwide outrage over Kingfisher. I don’t think people mind that the airline has failed: this is a difficult business and there’s no doubt that the government’s policies are strangling the aviation sector.
What people resent is that the employees have not been paid for months. A recent report suggests that not only did Kingfisher keep the tax deducted from them (which is supposed to be passed on to the government), but it is also sitting on over Rs 20 crores that such junior staff as flight attendants had to pay as deposits for training and uniform.
So forget about months and months of back pay. Forget about decent middle class people who have no money to pay their children’s school fees, their rents or their EMIs, and who have to borrow from friends and families to buy enough food to survive. The truth is that far from being paid they are actually subsidizing Kingfisher.
The resentment over Kingfisher is heightened by the Mallya factor.
Some people believe that Vijay Mallya ran Kingfisher as a hobby and insulated his profitable liquor holdings from the airline’s travails.
This is not true. Judging by what little I’ve seen of him over the last few years, Mallya was passionate about the airline and actually staked the booze business’s shares to banks to keep Kingfisher in the air.
Now that it has all gone so badly wrong, the liquor interests are suffering. After battling Kishore Chabbria for two decades over the Officer’s Choice brand, he has meekly surrendered it to his rival. And he will probably have to sell a large chunk of his main liquor company to Diaego to stay afloat.
But even so, there’s no denying that he has demonstrated an extraordinary lack of sensitivity over the fate of Kingfisher’s employees. There is something shameful about flaunting your own lavish lifestyle and your calendar girls at a time when decent, ordinary people are struggling to scrape two meals together only because they made the mistake of putting their faith in you and believed your promises. As the critics say: sell a couple of your houses or your private planes and give these ordinary folk the money that is rightfully theirs.
There is no doubt that Indian aviation is going through a terrible crisis. Nor can it be disputed that the government must accept a large part of the blame.
But here’s the problem: the aviation industry will never have support of the educated middle class as long as some of the airlines keep digging into our packets. Air-India survives today only because we, the tax-payers, cough up thousands of crores to keep it in the air.
Vijay Mallya can go from villa to yacht to private plane only because he is living off the money that belongs to the young people who trusted him.
You cannot steal from the ordinary Indian – or accept his subsidy, as Air-India has done – and then behave towards him with such utter contempt.
Nobody is going to tolerate this kind of robbery – where you pick a man’s pocket and then spit in his face – in this day and age.