Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Low Cost Carriers!

“I always find travelling by plane very romantic” said by my boss lady 38 years ago, while we were getting into a Dakota plane from Delhi to Chennai via Nagpur. I am yet to fathom what she found romantic in plane travel those days!

Remember, those were the days when we were at the mercy of the only domestic airline the country had – Indian Airlines. Limited services with limited and expensive tickets, old aircrafts with uncomfortable seats, airhostesses well past their primes, pathetic and tasteless food, delayed or cancelled flights, fear of getting offloaded because of overbooking. In spite of every conceivable negative point IA survived because it had no competition. Air travelers those days were really beggars without a choice! Dependent on Indian Airlines run by corrupt Babus of the Government!

Their idea of offering a cheap fare was restricted to the special cargo service which used to run in the night, ferrying mail from Post Offices. Dakota Aircrafts carrying mail bags departing around midnight from Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras used to converge at Nagpur and exchange bags of Mails and return to their respective bases every morning. In this essentially cargo service, a few seats were available for travel by passengers who wanted to save money on travel and did not care for travel comforts as long as they had a guaranteed seat!

Like everything else in life, what a distance we have travelled since those days! Apart from a choice of full-fare airlines we now have a choice of low cost carriers (LCCs)! Let us thank Captain Gopinath, whose vision has made air travel affordable to even R K Laxman’s common man. It is another matter that he tried to bite more than he could chew, landing himself and his airline into trouble; ultimately to be swallowed by a bigger fish (Kingfisher!). But the legacy of LCC left behind by Captain Gopinath has come to stay. While we are able to manage air tickets, at really bargain rates from a number of airlines, Captain Gopinath has gone back to flying helicopters – having made his pile in the process!

LCCs in India still offer a comfortable seat – though you have to pay for a bottle of water and the snacks they serve, at exorbitant rates on the flight; and of course no newspapers and magazines for your reading pleasure! You better pick up free copies of newspapers available at the checking counter before you get into the aircraft.

Indian LCCs are far better than in some other countries where, I understand, you have provision for even standing passengers ( like in the local trains and city buses). I wonder what they do when the flight is taking off or landing. Instead of tying the seat belt, do they have a system to tie their hands to the handle bars above them? I wonder!

Unlike Captain Gopinath`s Deccan Airways, which was notorious for its last minute cancellation and perpetual delays; the new breed of LCCs are far more customer-centric and efficient. In fact, Indigo Airlines, one of the latest entrant, holds a record for on-time arrival and departure of their flights for the last few years. All their aircrafts are new; the crew is smart, friendly and efficient; seats are comfortable and clean! You can always pack a pair of sandwiches or idlis from home if you don’t want to patronize the airline’s expensive catering service. The only negative point could be that you have to wake up at 3 am to catch a flight at 5.30 am!

Though I enjoy train journeys for the relaxation they offer, I am not averse to traveling by plane, the low cost variety I mean, even for personal trips; especially when I am hard pressed for time! After all they are just a few hundred rupees more than First Class A/C train fares!

Customers at last have become Kings when it comes to air travel! (And they can harbor romantic feelings as long as they don’t act on them, when pretty women are sitting next to them!)