The customer is always right. Unless, of course, she or he happens to be a non-vegetarian who cannot afford a business class or executive class ticket on an Air India flight. Since last month, India’s ailing national carrier has been serving only vegetarian meals to economy class passengers on all domestic routes. The policy was first implemented in a limited manner last year with non-vegetarian meals being taken off domestic flights less than 90 minutes long. The reasoning behind Air India’s decision appears problematic on various counts and shows a disdain for the dietary choices of a significant number of its consumers.
One of the reasons given by Air India for the move is that it will save the company about Rs 8 crore per year. Given that its debt is a whopping Rs 52,000 crore, the sum saved on chicken dinners is hardly likely to turn the company around. More importantly, in the competitive commercial airline space, Air India stands to annoy — if not completely alienate — its customers, about 30 per cent of whom opt for non-veg meals. But far more problematic than its linear economic rationale are Air India’s ideas on how it values its customers. The possibility of a “mix up”, with vegetarian patrons being served the wrong meal, has been used as an excuse.
Why an error on the part of cabin staff, who serve meals, should warrant forced vegetarianism remains a mystery. It also betrays a puritanical privileging of vegetarianism that has become a marked feature of India’s public life in recent times.The policy has not been extended to those who can afford a better seat. If desegregated food can upset vegetarians in economy, surely the same holds true for business class patrons. And if it makes better financial sense to go shakahari, the accounting should hold up for international routes too. But perhaps Air India has taken Renee Zellweger’s words in Jerry Maguire to heart: “First class used to be a better meal. Now it’s a better life.”