Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Flying cattle class: Or, Why I am afraid to travel on low cost airlines anymore

Shashi Tharoor is a genius. His (in)famous train ride spawned one of the most expressive words of this generation. Its not even the aam aadmi, its a subset. And such an apt one too. Now, I have travelled from my childhood on buses, trains, trams, metro and graduated to planes when I started working and could pay my way.

Once upon a time, long long ago, when I was studying in Manipal, my family and I took the Air India flight from Kolkata to Bangalore. We were scheduled to take a bus from Bangalore to Manipal. As Air India flights go, this one was more than two hours late... and we missed the bus. Which resulted us in having to take a seat in another bus, which broke down mid way, after which we had to scramble on to another bus in the wee hours of the morning. This was a local bus, packed to capacity, which took us to Mangalore, where we got one of those high speed inter city buses which would take us to Manipal by noon. Instead it ended up crashing into the back of a loaded truck, and resulted in my broken face and teeth which would trouble me ever since. All for the want of an in-time flight.

But generally planes could be a nice experience, with pretty enough attendants, food and water aplenty. Then came the age of the low cost airlines. Truth be told, my meagre salary allowed me to fly only because the low cost had arrived. Air Deccan made everything possible. The rickshaw puller could fly, and frankly I was not much better off. And apart from having to buy sandwiches at 4 times the cost, it was not a bad experience. Of course, one heard of people opening tiffin cases and having their lunches in flight, and I must say I saw some truth to that. Its good sense after all. Get your cakes and biscuits from home instead of letting them rip you off on board.

Still, the teeming millions of India are a meek lot. As is usual, they took some time to open up to the idea of taking to the skies. But when they did, wow, did they ever!

Lately I have had to take a number of flights on various sectors in the domestic circuit. Chennai-Bangalore, Chennai- Kolkata, Delhi- Kolkata. And I need to chronicle some of the experiences I faced in the last couple of months.
Just yesterday on the Delhi-Kolkata flight, a gentleman (not so much!) refused to switch off his phone. This, after being told by the attendant that he must, and we were just by the runway and would take off soon. "Madaaam", he screamed, "I have to send a message". My neighbours on two flights had to be told to switch off, one was an elderly gentleman who gushed into the phone what an experience it is to fly, and another young boy of about 20, flying with his mother, who kept leaning over two seats to look out the window, probably quite disappointed that he could not see the houses below! The boy nodded and switched off, the older gentleman, I suspect, never did, and the whole flight his phone was on. I need to suggest to airlines that on their domestic flights, they should make it a point to check everyones phones, much like they do at security check. If things go like this, there would soon be a couple of people on every plane with their phones on.

I had the bad luck of sitting by the in flight toilets on my last flight. The plane had already started taxying. The attendant had already taken her seat. One man was insisting that he needs to go right now. The attendant was begging at this point. Her poignant "please"s were hard to hear. Its not a train fellas.

Once upon a time Air Deccan had first come first serve policy when it came to seats on the flight. So usually when the boarding was announced there would usually be a mad dash for the plane to take the window seats. That is history now... but the other day I saw something which defied explanation.
Two overweihgt gentlemen came on at the last moment. One had an aisle seat and the other had the middle seat on the other side. He wanted to sit "beside" his mate, on the aisle seat, and he vehenmently argued that he could sit where he chose. The attendants were two very young girls, and I wonder in their training if they have courses to teach them to deal with such wonders.

Anyway, so trains and planes, not many differences nowadays. Apart from the price of the food, which to my woe, I HAVE to buy everytime, as I end up revenous hungry with all the standing at bus-stop-like boarding stations at airports, bus rides in the hot sun to reach the plane, and jostling with Indian Men to get to my seat with a cranky 4 year old and achey brakey back.

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