To give an analogy with sports, remember how Kapil Dev struggled in his latter years to break Sir Richard Hadlee’s record so that he could retire gracefully from Test cricket. This was a contradiction to that tall and athletic all-rounder who spearheaded India’s victory in the World Cup and inspired hundreds of youngsters to take up cricket. Similar is the case with Air India though I doubt if it ever had the majestic athleticism of Kapil Dev in his peak form. Last week I had to travel to Delhi and like a patriotic citizen trying to support the Government of India bought a ticket in Air India. Surprisingly, I received a call the previous day from the Air India call center wherein I was informed that the planes will take-off and land in the new Terminal T3. This was the only bit which I liked and it only flattered to deceive. From then on, the experience went steadily downhill.
The next morning I reached a little early and so decided to take my boarding pass for the return flight too. I was politely informed by the attendant that the return flight was cancelled so I had to take an earlier flight, which I promptly did. I was handed the boarding pass and so far so good.
After a fruitful day in Delhi I returned to the airport on time and was told to move towards Gate No 34 B. Since I had the foresight to take my boarding pass in Mumbai itself, I missed the confusion and crowds at the check in counters. Apart from an armed security guard, whose name appeared like that of a South Indian, there was nobody else there. My wait extended from 5.15 pm to 6.15 pm and still there was no clear announcement about the fate of our flight. The Air India officials were conspicuous by their absence while the loudspeaker attendant kept announcing the last and final call for the 5 pm Air India flight even though the time was 6.15 pm.
The patient nature of Indians seemed to be on display as each one waited for something to happen whereby we could board the flight. The clock ticked away to 7 pm and there appeared no signs of flight boarding or relevant announcement. By now the Indian level of tolerance had long been surpassed and people were displaying their restlessness. Some from the enterprising crowd started shouting aloud which drew the attention of the policeman who expressed his helplessness. Next, a person came from Air India came and he started shouting at his staff asking why no announcement was made about flight No IC 810.
The moment the screen showed that IC 810 was ready to take off, some other passengers who were to board a flight to Patna started shouting and ‘miraculously’ the Air India officials came and their flight also had the status – BOARDING. No wonder people conclude that unless you shout nothing happens.
The tragicomic story doesn’t end there. My boarding pass had seat 9D allotted to me but when I reached my seat there was another gentleman already comfortably seated. I crosschecked my ticket first and then his and viola, we both had the same seat numbers. My story was repeated with a few more passengers and soon we realized that there were 4 of us who had tickets with seat numbers already allotted to someone else. Is this not a security hazard that the same boarding pass is given to many people? It clearly shows a systemic failure because all the 4 people who had were travelling on the ‘duplicate’ boarding pass were citizens who had planned their trip well and organized themselves to collect their boarding pass in the morning itself. A solution was sought by the foursome but the Air India staff including the air-hostesses was not bothered about finding a solution. Obviously the flight could not take off.
The commercial staff arrived after 15-20 mins but no solution was at hand. The Indian mantra of getting things done was brought into action. Passengers who were patient so far started shouting and there was a pandemonium in the aircraft.
The commercial staff member then asked how many empty seats are there in the flight. A big debate ensued for 5-10 mins on who would finally count the number of empty seats. Finally an elderly lady volunteered and took her own sweet time to count and returned to say that there were 4 seats vacant in the business class. After 10-15 mins of deliberation we were allowed to sit in the business class seats after which the plane took off.
There was no sense of any urgency to find a solution to a problem; no sense of feeling or empathy for the poor customer who has paid money and needs to be provided a solution. Any set of motivated employees would have promptly volunteered to count the no of seats and the logical thought would have been to immediately accommodate the passengers in the vacant seats and take off after informing the necessary authorities.
Richard Branson in one of his articles on Virgin Airlines said people on the ground must be empowered to take decisions and move on with life. That’s the only way to get customer service up and running. Clearly, Air India has a high level of disempowerment at almost every level. It was so strange that nobody wanted to take decision. To top it all, the commercial staff member made a statement that the carrier had made a mistake by shifting the operations to T3.
It is my humble request to the government not to repeat mistakes like delayed divestment of MTNL and BSNL but to sell the airline as soon as possible. At least the government will get some money; but after 5-6 years, nobody will give anything also and it will become like the old Heavy Engineering Corporation in Jharkhand where I grew up. People will just get salaries and the organization will die a natural death. Contrast this with another pleasant experience I had with Air Asia where we were late for a connecting flight and still the staff went out of their way to ensure that we boarded the plane.
That is the level of service people expect now-a days. If this is the service Air India gives than nobody will travel on the national carrier.
Around three years ago Air India and Indian redesigned their logo with a Red color for the Flying Swan and Orange for the Chakra. Incidentally, both colors were meant to signify vigor and advancement; none of it visible in most departments of the national carrier. Given the recent disclosures by Ratan Tata on how he was unwilling to ‘pay a bribe’ to get into the aviation space, the government should perhaps look at giving the Tatas a chance to rebuild the airline. Remember Air India, once belonged to the Tatas before the government took over. At least from my side I am very clear, if things do not improve with Air India, I may as well say Ta Ta to this airline.