As a new airfare war breaks out, heralding the arrival of low-cost carrier Air Asia into Indian skies, I remember a time, not so long ago, when stodgy Indian Airlines was the only option available to domestic air passengers. Then, with liberalisation, came a slew of private airlines that swiftly raised standards, providing customers with the very best in travel services and in-flight comfort. As a nation, we soon got accustomed to well groomed, savvy young men and women politely and efficiently checking in at the airport, serving us palatable meals in-flight and mint sachets after, and ensuring that we generally departed and arrived at our destinations on time.
Airfares became highly competitive, so much so, that an entire class of Indians who once could never have dreamt of boarding a plane, could now fly across the country, and to distant shores, at affordable prices.
Our new airlines were sexy, sassy and a shining example of how Indian private enterprise, once freed from the shackles of government interference, could produce a world-class product. However, like Icarus, some of our domestic players sought to fly too high, too soon and were scorched by their own hubris.
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Perhaps chastened by Kingfisher’s rapid descent into the red, the other airlines decided to fasten their austerity belts and introduced a number of cost-cutting measures. Luggage allowance was slashed so that charging for excess baggage could generate revenue.
The airlines in the US have already figured out how to turn profits by making customers pay for every conceivable service. And it seems that our domestic carriers are diligently following suit. Want to choose your seat? Then pay extra, online, to ensure that you get to sit in comfort, or next to your companion.
Want to check-in your luggage? Well, it costs you $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second suitcase in America. Want to avail of in-flight entertainment? First cough up $2 for a pair of tiny headphones and then swipe your credit card again to watch a movie or HBO.
If you want to eat or drink on board you can purchase food and even alcohol. But heaven help the poor vegetarians, who are offered a Hobson’s choice between ham or turkey sandwiches by surly flight attendants, who all look close to retirement age. When you arrive at your destination, remember to keep $5 handy for a luggage trolley.
These are standard norms, applicable not just to low cost carriers but also across all airlines in the US. As Indians, we were briefly spoilt silly by our private airlines that once served up lobster thermidor and handed out numerous freebies. But now we have been rudely brought down to earth. Let’s hope that the turbulent times in the aviation industry soon pass and the customer emerges as the true king of good times.
Did I hear someone say, “ Hawa main ab achche din aaney waaley hain.”
This story appeared in print under the headline Airline Fracture