I’ve been sitting in aeroplanes for most of my life. And there was a time when not only did I enjoy it, I actually looked forward to flights – especially the ones that took me abroad. There was, I thought, something impossibly glamorous about checking in at an airport, boarding a flight, being greeted by a smiling airhostess and watching a movie on board.
I loved it all – even the duty-free shopping. I grew up in pre-liberalisation India, when nothing that was desirable to young people was actually available here.
A visit to an international airport was, in that era, the equivalent of what a visit to a mall is to today’s kids. I would wander through the perfume section, trying on every new aftershave I could find. I would linger by the booze racks and decide which of the bottles on display I could afford.
These days, however, much of the glamour of flying has vanished. I don’t like airports. I’m bored of seeing exactly the same merchandise (liquour and fragrances) on display at every single airport everywhere in the world. And I find that with notable exceptions, flights are ordeals.
Has flying become less glamorous? Or have I just got older? It is a mixture of both, I suspect.
But here, in no particular order, are the things I hate about flying these days.
There was a time when the people who checked you in (at least if you were travelling in the front of the aircraft) pretended to be pleased to see you. They believed they were in a service industry and recognised that the consumer experience began at check in.
These days, however, nearly everywhere in the world, the person doing your ground handling regards you with suspicion and/or scarcely concealed disdain. Once upon a time, frequent travellers even built up relationships with the people who manned the premium counters. (And often the staff at the economy desks was even friendlier.) From 1973 to around 1997, I flew Air India on the London-India sector several times a year. I knew nearly every duty officer or manager by name and many of the check-in staff became friends.
These days, Air India has destroyed its ground handling by outsourcing it to outside contractors. The people at the counters (especially in Delhi) don’t care about Air India because they know they will be out of there in six months when they get a better job. There is no attempt to smile or be welcoming to passengers. (To be fair, at some airports, Bangalore for instance, the quality of service remains high.)
I reckon that 80 per cent of the public anger with Air India comes from the couldn’t-care-less attitude of its outsourced ground staff. Old Indian Airlines and Air India employees try to fly the flag but it is a losing battle. As long as Air India’s ground staff treats passengers badly, most Indians will oppose any government bail-outs for the airline.
On the other hand, Jet Airways (in Bombay, especially) has the best ground staff I have encountered at any airline anywhere in the world. So Indians can do it. But only if we care enough.
I get shouted at for saying this but, at least in the front of the aircraft, it is hard to beat Jet and Air India for quality of cabin crew. I’m a fan of Singapore Airlines’ inflight service. And that’s about it. Which is not to say that these airlines don’t often get it wrong. (They do.) And other airlines can surprise you. The best inflight service I’ve had recently was on British Airways from Barcelona to London, where the purser went out of his way to look after every passenger.
I hear a lot about the Middle Eastern carriers, but the only one I’ve flown recently is Emirates, which has very average service. Most European carriers are pretty bad (in my experience, Air France is easily the worst) and the East Asians still score over them.
The problem with Air India (as you can guess, I use Indian carriers whenever I can) is that the number of employees willing to stick up for the values that JRD Tata established when he set up the airline is diminishing. I was on a flight from Delhi to Bangalore a week ago and the boarding was haphazard and shoddy.
The only person who stood up for the passengers (and the core of values of hospitality) was the cabin crew in charge, who complained about the way we were being herded into the plane. Of course, she was overruled. But I was impressed enough by her determination to preserve the quality of the passenger experience to ask her who she was and why she fought this losing battle. (She was Chalapati Rachel, employee number 536041, and had joined Indian Airlines 11 years ago. What a shame that she didn’t get her way.)
Has airline food really got worse or have we just got more fussy? I don’t know. But what is clear is that despite the multiplicity of flight kitchens, nearly every airline flying out of Delhi has terrible food. (An exception, oddly enough, is Turkish Airlines.) It is so bad that I try not to eat on planes if I can help it. On medium-haul flights, I pack my own food.
My guess is that as the volume of flights has increased, the flight kitchens have become factories, churning out thousands of meals a day with no real concern for quality. At the flight kitchens run by hotel chains, the chefs would be summarily dismissed if they served such rubbish at their own hotels.
In other countries, the food can be better but the only airline that has surprised me with a) the quality of its food and b) the depth of knowledge of its staff about the cuisine and wine on board is Qantas.
My general rule is never order the Western meal if you can help it. Order the Indian curry. Remember that the food was made over 20 hours ago and has been sloppily reheated. And Indian food reheats better than say, a chunk of lamb or a rubbery chicken breast.
It is not fair to just blame airlines. Passengers have also got worse. We are ruder to each other than before. We carry huge handbags, which we know will never fit in the overhead lockers, and then complain when we are told we can’t take them aboard the aircraft. We shove and we push, for no apparent reason, in the coaches taking us to the plane. We talk loudly on long-haul flights even when we know that everyone else is sleeping. Or we keep kicking the seat in front of us. When we stand up, we pull the seat in front of us, jerking awake the sleeping passenger.
My particular bugbear is people with backpacks. For some reason, they imagine that their backpacks take up no space. So, while climbing into the plane or in the bus to the plane, they will carelessly turn around, hitting people on their heads with their backpacks, or they will push other passengers up against the wall with the pressure of their overfilled backpacks.
And I loathe people who can’t take care of their children. Yes, it can’t be easy travelling with kids. I know because I’ve done it myself. And I don’t mind if some hapless mother is unable to stop her infant from crying.
The people who anger me are those who allow their spoilt brats to run up and down the aisle, singing film songs or shouting “Whoo! Whoo!” The parents know this is wrong. But they couldn’t be bothered to keep their kids in check because it is too much trouble.
This is an interesting one. India has some pretty terrible new airports – Madras, Calcutta and Goa among them. But we also have some outstanding airports – Bangalore and Delhi are easily the best, but I like the international terminals in Mumbai and Hyderabad too.
But as Indian (Asian, even) airports have got better, those in the West have collapsed. Heathrow is easily the worst major airport in the world. I have no great affection for a single American airport that I have travelled through. Zurich is a hellhole and Charles de Gaulle is even worse (if such a thing is possible).
For Indians travelling through Western airports, security can be a nightmare. Somehow, we will always be the ones they pick out for “completely random checks” even if we haven’t beeped while going through the metal detectors.
And they don’t care how long they keep you waiting at Immigration. America used to be bad; it has now got better. Paris is inconsistent. Heathrow and Zurich are terrible. But Rome is an international disgrace – the worst airport I have ever had the misfortune to travel through. (And my list includes Dhaka!)
The glamour of air travel
Oh, don’t make me laugh. I don’t think there is glamour left in air travel any longer. In fact, I actually find it stressful and Heathrow, for instance, always raises my blood pressure.
But look at the brighter side. It gets us from Point A to Point B relatively quickly. And once we’ve got off the planes, we are so relieved that we are certain to enjoy what comes next!
From HT Brunch, November 29
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