I decided to travel to India this time by Air India from San Francisco. Since the 1980s Indians living in the Bay Area have had to use other major carriers to fly to India. The flights were long and not direct. They always had a stop over and the destination for the stop over depended on the carrier.
In the 1990s and in the first decade of the 2000s, I used to fly for at least 2 weeks in each month. My flights were mostly international therefore I flew many airlines. If I recall correctly, my last flight using Air India was about 18 years back and that was a short flight from Shanghai to Mumbai. Therefore, I was excited because I was flying direct to Delhi from San Francisco and I was flying Air India after a long time.
In 2014, Air India started direct flights from San Francisco to Delhi after Prime Minister Modi took a decision in this regard. I recall Air India executives telling us in press briefings how surprised they were when the Prime Minister not only asked the management to start this flight but also gave them a date by which the route had to be operational. I was happy that Air India management was handed down this decision from the topmost leader in the country.. They had been allowing every other carrier to earn revenue from this massive market of Indian-Americans in Silicon Valley since the early 1980s. For 30 years, Air India management couldn’t or wouldn’t start a direct flight from the West coast of the United States. By the way, not having any flights from California didn’t stop them from retaining and paying a sales director who worked out of California. One sure wonders about the need for this post when there were no operational routes on this sector. But they got away with it. Shall I add this to one more instance of the wonders of working in the public sector? Many have called Air India an executive airline for the bureaucrats and elected officials of the Indian government.
Indian Americans living in Northern California took to this new flight route wholeheartedly. But I didn’t fly Air India because I had some doubts on the quality of its service. I waited because I believed that with time, logistical challenges would be worked out and service quality would improve. After a long wait, I finally decided to fly Air India on March 25, 2019.
So I found myself, in flight AI184, in the business class section, and I’ve been trying to record my experiences so far. We are 9 hours into this flight. The cabin crew is professional and helpful. However, there is a serious problem with the flight quality: quality of the equipment available to passengers, maintenance standards, and the overall staff attitude toward it. There are also deficiencies in cabin crew training although the cabin crew is doing their best to make up for the quality issues I discuss below.
My first surprise was the absence of WiFi availability. The Chief purser tells me that the aircraft is equipped to deliver WiFi service but DGCA (Director General of Civil Aviation, the Indian equivalent of FAA) doesn’t permit it. I have yet to check out the veracity of this statement on the DGCA website.
Even in business class, the aircraft looks shabby with improvised or rundown fittings. The second big surprise was the entertainment system.
The headphone receptacles don’t work on my seat (I’m using a standard Bose headphone plug). The crew is unable to help. There were exactly 18 movie choices in English They were classified in two categories of 9 movies each: Classic English and Latest English.
None of the choices interested me so I decided to check the flight map. Well, I was in for another surprise: no flight data was available. I switched to flight camera. The menu offered a choice of views from the front and from below the aircraft. No, it wasn’t a surprise anymore: none of the systems I was trying were working. The crew was nonplussed about all of this – this was their “normal.”
So, here I am traveling in business class with a good size monitor screen in front of me which doesn’t work. I have no desire to try anything else on that screen.
I complained to the staff but one of them was assiduous enough to tell me that he could not be held responsible for this because it really was the responsibility of the maintenance staff. The second staff member wanted to show me the log entry to record these problems. Their supervisor accepted responsibility for these issues and advised the staff accordingly.
I believe that even though they listened to my complaints they didn’t think that these were issues that a customer should be sensitive about. Their sense of normal was different from mine. The question I am grappling with is: Do you really want to pay thousands of dollars for this kind of service?
With this experience, I felt the urge to pray that other crucial systems hanging below the wings kept working and that I reach my destination safely.
A little while ago, there were Indian media reports applauding Air India pilots for landing a flight from India to New York which had experienced total navigational system failure in all its three backups. None thought about asking how this crucial system failed along with all its backups simultaneously. This is serious business, isn’t it? Yes, we have also heard about Air India operations certifying the plane to be okay to fly to the United States from India with a full load of passengers and with only one functional toilet. But navigation failure is more serious. What’s next? I dread to even think about it.
This brings me to management and training. Air India management is definitely not capable of doing its job. The Prime Minister needs to take another momentous decision and it is not about starting a new flight route They need to either privatize this airline or bring in a professional and dynamic management team. I personally prefer the first alternative (privatize along with its real estate assets or with a debt adjusted option), because the second option may not be permanent.
We know how political leaders and bureaucrats can run down a good public sector enterprise.
I hope my return flight is better!