A frequent flyer's notes on airlines & airports
Francois Gautier | Monday, February 20, 2012
As one of the many frequent flyers in India who hop from one airport to the other and live quite a harried life, I thought it might be interesting to grade India’s airlines and airports, particularly in the light of the recent warning by International Air Transport Association chief Tony Tyler:
‘India is a market that’s missing out on aviation’s potential as a result of a policy framework that doesn’t support aviation’s competitiveness.’
Whatever has been said about Kingfisher, it’s the top airline in India: it has the newest wide-bodied planes, the prettiest airhostesses, the best service on the ground and aboard and the best business class. One can dislike Vijay Mallya’s style, but he had the ambition to give Indian passengers a real treat after the drab decades of a state-controlled airline, even if he saw too big. He is also a patriot, wanting to put India on the world map, whether with his F1 racing team, or his airline.
Indigo comes second. Its Airbuses are even newer than Kingfisher’s; its airhostesses not as pretty, but still quite charming and it is the most on-time airline. But it offers no extra service and its prices are not really those of a no-frills airlines. A one way Delhi- Pune flight bought at the last moment can cost up to Rs14,000.
I rate Air India as the third best. Ah, I can see the smirks! But I have travelled Air India for many years on international routes and, it has always been a good airline. The truth is that the government killed it long before it wanted to wash its hands of it as it does now. Air India had a relatively good image, but by merging it with Indian Airlines, which never was a good brand, it brought down Air India in one stroke. Yet, even today, Air India domestic is not a bad airline. Its planes are mostly recent (like the Airbuses 319 & 321), its new orange uniforms are smart and there are even a few pretty air hostesses now. The Indian government should immediately separate Air India from Indian Airlines and promote Air India abroad as a rebranded airline.
Jet Airways, in my book, comes after Air India and Indigo. Its domestic fleet is ageing, its jets are narrow-bodied, mostly Boeings 737, where you have no leg space in economy if you are a big person, its staff is often arrogant and its business class is overpriced. Contrary to Mallya, who has chosen to be in India, Naresh Goyal lives in a palatial house in London with five Roll Royces and has never shown any kind of patriotism. True, Jet is quite reliable and on time and it has a wide network, but Goyal’s choice to cash in on international routes rather than domestic may be a fatal mistake.
Now to the airports. If an airport is judged by the state of its toilets, Chennai rates as the worst in India. The toilets there are filthy and cramped with narrow doors so that passengers have to fight their way in and out. It’s not only the toilets. The airport is old, cramped, visitors waiting for passengers have to wait outside like cattle, with little comfort, a relic of the paranoia of the Karunanidhi family. True, two new terminals are being erected, but considering it took three years to build the small flyover above the airport, one can be pessimistic.
The second worst is Pune. The easy way out in the old days was to pay a hefty fee to the Air Force to use its airports. This is what happened in Bangalore for decades, till someone had the courage to build the current airport. No such common sense has come to Pune, where the Nehruvian relic that is the the Airport Authority of India, continues to lease the Air Force space, which leads to untold hassles to the passengers, as there are times the runway is closed when the Mirages practice their noisy take off and landings.
The security at Pune is drastic, cars are not allowed anymore to park in the airport, photography is prohibited when anyone can Google Earth the Pune airport, and the terminal is tiny whereas it sees one of the fastest growing traffic in India. Many proposals have been mooted for new airports, but politicians and their land scams have so far blocked them.
The third worst is Kolkata, which was once one of the most modern in India. But anything here ages fast, if not renovated frequently.
What about the best? Delhi, of course: India has proved there that it can build airports of international standard in record time. Mumbai comes second, though the queuing for take-off can take ages, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Goa are third, but they have already become too small, which shows the need to think big in India for the demand always exceeds the offer.
Unless the government allows foreign investment in aviation, and removes the horrendous taxes on fuel and airport charges, it will end up killing its own airlines, Air India first.
The author is the editor-in-chief of the Paris-based La Revue de l’Inde and the author of The Guru of Joy