Have you noticed how the mind can create a parallel reality? An individual or an organisation may be in crisis but news of the denouement can bring memories of happier times flooding back. Or, as you pour over reports of disaster, you can also recollect forgotten golden days.
That’s how I reacted to Air India’s misfortunes. In the 1970s, when I was in my teens, it was one of the world’s best airlines. On the competitive London-New York route it was the leader, way ahead of Trans World Airlines, Pan American World Airways and British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) — its competitors. But who would accept that now?
The truth is that Air India’s halcyon days seem like a fairytale — bewitching, beguiling but hardly believable. For that reason alone I want to share my memories. Before we bury Air India — as I fear we may — let’s rejoice in the wonder that was.
My first journeys on Air India were as a free passenger. Kiran, my sister, was working at the Bond Street office in London and Daddy had been bullied into appointing her my guardian while I was at Stowe. This meant I qualified for Kiran’s tickets and spent my vacations travelling the world. The rest of the school would re-assemble talking of Brighton or Liverpool. I’d return boasting of New York.
The flight I’ll never forget was Christmas 1973. Kiran and I headed for India. In those days Air India was like a bus. The plane would halt in Paris, Frankfurt and Beirut before reaching Delhi. As free passengers we only flew if there were no other paying ones. So each stop was purgatory — would some one else take our place?
The first danger was Heathrow itself. Often the flight would be full. Kiran also feared Paris and Frankfurt. There can always be new fare-paying passengers here, she warned. But once we crossed Europe it was commonly thought the danger had passed.
How wrong that assumption was. As we touched down in Beirut the pilot announced “Will free passengers disembark with their hand luggage?” “That’s us,” Kiran declared.
I got off clutching a silver-plated candelabra bought for my parents. Kiran had a carton of cigarettes. We’d no clothes, no toiletries and little money. But what did we discover? There were 27 others in the same position. All Air India staff. Each on holiday.
This took Air India equally by surprise but the management responded with warmth. “Normally we wouldn’t be responsible,” the station manager said, “but seeing how many there are, we’ll arrange the hotel where the crew stay. You’ll get a 50 per cent discount.”
It was The Phoenicia, at the time the best in Beirut. Today, it doesn’t exist but its legend lives on. It had a glass-bottom pool that doubled as the roof of the bar. It’s elegance made Paris feel provincial. The Phoenicia was home till the next Air India flight. I’d sleep in my undies, after washing my shirt for the next day. We lived off coffee and sandwiches. But promenading on Al-Hamra, alongside the rich and beautiful, banished all thought of deprivation. We stayed up late, wandered all over and made friends who spoilt us. Unplanned it may have been but it was carefree and fun.
Six months later Beirut was engulfed in civil war and The Phoenicia destroyed. For two decades no one visited. Each time I spun stories of my enchanted holiday people would ask “How did it happen?” “Air India,” I’d respond, knowing they’d want to hear more.
The views expressed by the author are personal