Aviation, Culture, I.M.H.O.

Namaste. (Not) Welcome Aboard.

An Indian Airlines Airbus A320.
An Indian Airlines Airbus A320.

Mr. Anand Giridharadas’ column in New York Times, “Will India Lose Its Charm as It Becomes ‘World Class’?” sounds like it’s made up. His portrayal of the in-flight service of Indian Airlines—India’s state-owned airline that flies mostly on domestic routes—seems inaccurate. In the said article, Mr. Giridharadas laments that the pressure to modernize and the need to conform to so-called “world-class” airline standards has eroded India’s gracious hospitality, warmth, and charm.

Quoting a flight attendant, he writes:

But you haven’t eaten anything! Come, come, you must have something. At least, take some bread. Please.

He goes on to say:

But just a few years ago, in India, it was not uncommon to encounter flight attendants who took it personally when you did not eat.

Well, that’s most touching. And there’s nothing wrong with this picture—except that it’s a distortion. Setting the record straight would require me to travel back in time by 30 years.

The India of the 1970s was a vastly different place from what it’s today. Its single most distinguishing trait was that it wasn’t globalized. And everything else that came later, followed from that. The atmosphere wasn’t saturated by the buzz of call centers, the 24/7 yakking on cell phones, and the frenzied text-messaging. Bollywood songs—the bedrock of India’s music industry and popular culture— hadn’t turned loud, with its crappy Punjabi lyrics.

There wasn’t much dirty money flowing across intercontinental bank accounts. Bureaucrats considered deregulation a ridiculous joke. It was the Golden Era for everything state-owned—All India Radio, Doordarshan, State Bank of India, the Public Sector Enterprises, Indian Railways, and the two of its national airlines—Air-India and Indian Airlines—among a raft of other agencies.

Back then, we didn’t have the luxury of too many choices in much of what we were buying: a tube of toothpaste (Binaca or Colgate); a sachet of coffee (Nescafé); a jar of moisturizing lotion (Nivea or Pond’s.) Mobility was restricted to only three possibilities: you could travel either by road in a lumbering motorized elephant, the Ambassador or it’s puny cousin, the Fiat; undertake a 48-train ride, or fly—Indian Airlines, of course.

I’ve been an Indian Airlines passenger since the age of three. At the time, I was a toddler with no decision-making authority. Happily, I went everywhere my parents took me, especially, if it meant a flight from Guwahati to Kolkata in a Boeing-737.

Years later, when the rainbow of private airlines with trendy names like Jet Airways, Spice Jet and GoAir, made the Indian skies more colorful, and I had the option of choosing between airline A and B, I was still flying the same airline.

Like so many others, I didn’t switch my brand loyalty. So, when I say I know Indian Airlines like the back of my palm, I know what I’m talking about. Once delightfully sensuous, it has, over the years, lost much of its appeal. But even in its heyday, it wasn’t anything close to what Mr. Giridharadas describes. Its cabin crew hasn’t been known to make sentimental entreaties to passengers over a tray of untouched food.

Today, in India, I.C. (industry abbreviation, for Indian Airlines) has become a byword for an aging fleet of aircraft, frequent strikes and—guess what?—poor customer service. However, I wouldn’t expect Mr. Giridharadas to know that. He himself states:

And yet now, when I visit America, where I grew up until moving to India six years ago.

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