As a six-year-old kid growing in a tier-2 city in India back in the 90s, the only modes of transportation I was familiar with were trains and buses. Flying was a distant dream, primarily because we had no airport and because flying back then was an expensive luxury only a few could afford.
Fast forward twenty years and there are at least a dozen international airports in India with virtually every important city connected by a domestic airline route. Flights are affordable, perhaps even equivalent to the A/C sleeper coaches on trains. Thanks to the emerging low-cost airlines, the likes of Indigo, Go Air, Air Asia, Spicejet, and more, flying today in India is no more seen as a mark of status that it once was. It has become more of a way for the masses to travel within and out of the world’s second-most-populous country. But will the young folks flying for the first time today be able to fall in love with aviation as I did in my childhood? Or will they just see it as a basic form of transportation?
As an aviation enthusiast, someone who was so mesmerized by the roaring engines and beautiful aerodynamic bodies that he decided to graduate in Aerospace, I have always had a love-hate relationship with low-cost airlines. On more than one occasion, I have tried to poke my brain into thinking why. The answer always seems to be that the premium-ness of flying has gone away with budget airlines coming in.
Growing up, flying was a royal feeling. One aptly portrayed by the Maharaja figurine of Air India — the national carrier of my country. While tickets are cheaper today and more people can fly, it has made the airlines reach down to the bottom of their economic sheets to stay competitive and build a wider customer base.
This is not to say that services are poor or the planes are bad, but there is a strong element of cost cutting involved. To maintain unit economics and provide affordable tickets, airlines have scheduled as many flights as possible in a day which causes frequent delays. Here are just some grievances from my recent travels on some of the budget airlines in India.
Check-ins are all about making money. A few low-cost airlines today allow you to check in 48 hours before your flight, but what good is checking in if you are only offered middle seats? Often, the likes of Indigo and Go Air allow you to pick the middle seats for free while the ones on the aisles or window are paid. The only exception to the rule are seat numbers 27 to 30 in a 30-row Airbus A320. If you are traveling with a friend or a colleague, there is absolutely no way the two of you can check in and sit together without paying for a seat, unless you are able to get one of those absolute last rows. While checking in, the seat costs vary upon where you want to sit.
Will purchasing your seat become the norm? Like food and bag space has today? But what this norm will take away is that joy, that rush to check in exactly 48 hours before the flight so you can grab seat number 19F and enjoy the view of the folding flaps, without being charged a dime. Maybe I am too much of an aero-romantic nerd.
PLANES IN BAD SHAPE
I have been on more than one flight in the last month or so where the seats have been torn or the armrests have been damaged. As someone who worked for Air India in the maintenance division, I well understand the challenges of turning a plane back to prevent delays and therefore little things, especially in the interior, can be let go.
But what if the window shades are defective? Or the armrest is just not there? Or even worse, the emergency exit level cover is pasted with tape? Yes, you guessed it right’¦ the plane still takes the journey because the route crunch that low-cost airlines face is just tremendous.
General cleanliness has never been the bragging point for us Indians, but call it the beauty of retrospection. A few years ago, planes were clean, well maintained and kept well. They did not have great IFEs or mood lighting, but flying made you feel good ’“ almost proud.
I was on a Go Air flight recently and maybe it skipped my sight earlier when this became a common practice, but on this one flight, the overhead luggage bins featured these ugly posters advertising a water purifier brand. For a split second, I thought I was sitting in a local Delhi metro. As a marketer myself, I have done work with airlines on advertising, but we always restricted ourselves to magazine ads, baggage tag ads, perhaps boarding passes, and this placement took me by surprise. Not only did it look tacky, it ruined the gorgeous interior of the plane. Yes, every penny is important, but what next? Will the interiors also be branded? Will the flight attendants wear uniforms with sponsored logos? There must be a line drawn, but where?
THE ROMANCE OF FLYING
These were just three instances, there are many more. Just imagine, a seven-year-old young boy traveling and experiencing these things, for him this will be a norm, the new standard if you may. He will not remember the clean, beautiful, white plane, bang on-time with courteous staff, and handsome pilot. He might not aspire to be one among these folks in the uniform. For him, this will be the new yardstick of measurement.
I am not arguing keeping a plane clean or maintaining it well would ensure more people would fall in love with aircraft or even the idea of flying. However, they make a difference and leave a mark.
Today, while flying has become so affordable, and a lot of credit for that must go to the low-cost airlines, we have paid a price for it. For a romantic, this price is slightly heavier than for a regular passenger. For many, planes are just a quicker (and now cheaper) way to get from one place to another. We have sold away that immaculate feeling of standing out, that feeling of being special, while opening the doors of accessibility. It is only a good thing, but I hope we can find a balance, just the right balance between being affordable and being aspirational. As airlines around the world race to the bottom, I hope some will remain up top, so we can remember what flying used to be like.
This story was written by Arpit Verma for AirlineReporter. Arpit is an aviation enthusiast who also happens to be working in the field of renewable energy, handling marketing for MYSUN. A massive Man Utd fan, he holds his graduate degree in Aerospace Engineering.