Thursday, May 19, 2005

Air India : sleeper class at economy price

Steaming aromatic Indian cuisine, sari clad smart airhostess and background music of santoor with a punch line of 98% on- time schedule would enchant anyone who sees this Air India advertisement. When I was offered an option to travel MUM-LA-MUM by Air India, everything seemed in place including direct flight with no stopover in Europe. However, nothing seemed in place right from the word go and the script did not deviate much until I cleared my baggage at Chatrapati Shivaji terminal in Mumbai on return.

Boeing Khajuraho looked impressive from outside but high expectations quickly disappeared when it turned out to be an age-old leased Korean airlines aircraft. Hopeless attempt to seal open cigarette armrest ash pot with black masking tape and yellow stained toilet plastic mould said it all.

Our take off from Mumbai began after a delay of five plus hours freeing all passengers any worries of connecting flights. At the aircraft, plump hostess hiding her girth, peered through thick glass over her nose - admonishing passengers Seat belts please・ This reminded me of strolling stern teacher while students wrote their exam papers. Special video screening started extolling the virtues of this aircraft with instructions on How to use the toilet and flush・and Why one should not use toilet as dustbin ・I am sure this must have amused German passengers who boarded the aircraft in Frankfurt.

With distribution of Halidiram Namkeen packets, finger exercise began earnestly for all passengers. I do not know why these packets never get opened from the notch that is supposedly present. When brought to the notice of air India purser, he mentioned Air India ensures that passengers on long haul flights are kept busy with this exercise. He was smart person to bring smile to annoying passengers. I also realized that Air India hostess are good in storing energy by avoiding additional errands for serving drinks. They stuff you an extra drink or two in first serving itself. So by the time, food trolley arrives demanding an answer from hungry passenger to their question of Veg or non-veg・ one can use spare trays of adjacent seat to keep used cans. Serving tea from dented steel jug with marking of Coffee only added consistency to the overall food management. Flight navigation map alternating with flashed out message Map doesn't depict political boundaries・proclaimed India's non-interference foreign policy while using their airspace. Projection screen at each zone showed movie but often subtitles were thrown outside bottom of the screen. Music through headphone is classical tough plastic piped music often with unopened or clogged connector tips

Counter at Los Angles airport was a symbol of chaos with both in and out bound passengers mercilessly tearing away hapless temporary agency staff. Manager was either conspicuous by his absence or taken a shelter behind the door. Entry for authorized personnel only・ Return flight was also no exception. Air India cancelled this flight citing reason that the ministry pulled this aircraft to support presidential entourage. It seemed there was one more aircraft stranded for 7 days for want of spare part. Net result: three aircrafts leaving for India in space of few hours with same number of ground staff. Customer support hotlines based in India only added to the passenger woes as they had no idea of the situation at the LA airport. I wonder, with frequent cancellations how much of taxpayers money is used on accommodation of passengers at various hotels.

Narrow width and slow speed of baggage belt at Mumbai airport only make big suitcases either get piled up over eachother or get thrown out of the belt. Flight number was announced on one belt while luggage arrived on another- giving an impression of last minute platform change for suburban train. The sight of General Manager -Ground Operations at the baggage belt did convey spirit of Air India's ground operations but this was dispelled quickly when it became clear that they had only gathered to escort the son of air India director who had arrived by the same aircraft.

After reading this narration, one would think it is prudent to avoid Air India but smart thinking would let otherwise. With notoriety of air India spreading like wildfire, fewer passengers take risk of traveling by air India giving row of empty seats and cheap fare. It is matter of time, Air India is collapsed by their inefficient and inept operations but while it is still gasping・one can have a luxury of traveling sleeper class at the price of economy.

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