Kolkata: Air India is struggling to gain its lost glory. Yes, there have been attempts to sell the airline to private firms, but they have come a cropper! However, for old-timers, the heritage value of Air India is unparalleled. For 68-year-old Asoke Kumar Chatterjee, flying meant Air India, back in the sixties. “There was no other aircraft in the country that could fly you to the US and back. Air India was the only option and indeed it lived up to its name. There were class, professionalism and luxury – all that defined your flying experience to the T,” he says.
Madhuchhanda Sen, 56, was shocked by the news of its sell. “I was a frequent flyer, but didn’t ever have the opportunity of taking an Air India flight before I got one. I was floored by the hospitality. There were three rows and the aircraft was a double-decker, with an escalator. The child in me was ecstatic to see such an aircraft for the first time,” Sen says.
But having said that, the downfall of the airline has its own reasons. Jitender Bhargava, former executive director of Air India says, “The fall of this once-iconic airline is sad for old-timers because Air India does not deserve this treatment. What is painful is that people will gradually forget its glorious past. Faster the government ownership is got rid of, the better it will be. As a PSU, Air India suffers from competitive disadvantage since it has to follow government norms in recruitment, promotions, decision making besides constant meddling in its functional affairs by politicians and bureaucrats.”
The merger of Air India and Indian Airlines didn’t work and it was mired in corruption when the UPA government was in power. Such was the repercussion that recently, Air India asked its cabin crew to share hotel rooms.
And the employees were at the receiving end. A PRO of Air India, quit his job under unforeseen circumstances. “We were suddenly told that there wouldn’t be salary for the next two months. It was a shocker for people who run families. And we had to look for options immediately,” he says.
The in-house magazine is in a state of shambles “Shubh Yatra used to be a class in itself. It was a 150-page magazine, with rich content, but the last time I flew, it was reduced to a 50 pager with no quality content. There’s nothing to look forward to,” says Gita Mukherjee, a 70-year-old Delhiite. The size of the page was also reduced from A-4 to A-6.
A former Air India employee, on condition of anonymity says, “I know Air India will not be sold. But it will deteriorate more in the coming months. The employee morale is reduced so much, that the services are affected badly. How could such a dismal performance run the show?”
In the service sector, Air India is up against private giants like Indigo and GoAir. So, it was about time to pull up its socks anyway. And the quality of hospitality also matters. “It was sad how the air hostesses didn’t react and were slow. At a time when carriers are going out of their way to offer services to get passengers, Air India is sinking. And why not? Officials had so much of uncertainty in their minds. The employees didn’t know when they would get their next salary and their morale was damaged,” says Kallol Chattopadhyay, a US-based pharmacist.
Age is an important factor too. The average age in Air India is 52 years, unlike that of its peers which has employees as young as 27. “Public sector demands energy. How can you expect a 52-year-old man, with no offence meant, to be fast on the job? Indigo is so punctual because it has young people who ensure comfort in any way,” adds Chattopadhyay.
Air India has faced flak, but the old-world charm of the carrier cannot be overlooked. Old-timers are sad, yet they have respect for the carrier.
(The writer works with Eastern Chronicle, Kolkata)