Sometime in 1967, the Tatas commissioned Salvador Dali to design a porcelain ashtray for gifting International first class passengers.
Published: 23rd October 2022 12:56 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd October 2022 12:59 AM   |  A+A-
Sometime in 1967, the Tatas commissioned Salvador Dali to design a porcelain ashtray for gifting International first-class passengers. Instead of dollars, the eccentric Spanish artist demanded a baby elephant as the fee. Unfazed, Air India flew the elephant to Geneva from Bangalore. The inverted swan shaped ashtray by Dali with two elephants holding it is now a collector’s item. AI’s journey from elephant to white elephant hasn’t taken much time. Today its onboard giveaways are not coveted collectibles but small-size Cadbury’s chocolates, some wafers and paltry snacks in plastic pouches.

Once, Air India was a master class in class. Now it is an elephantine folly perpetrated by decades of corruption, red tape, and political interference with staff strength larger than Dali’s elephant. Even nine months after the Tatas bought the airline, the Maharaja’s smile is a grimace without a gleam. AI planes have the dreary look and feel of their grimy government past. Its fleet of 140 aircraft flies to over 70 international and 100 domestic destinations. AI controls 4,400 domestic and 1,800 international landing and parking slots. But where is the famed Tatas touch? J R D Tata had a vision about how an airline should be run. When I was the editor of The Indian Express, the Grand Old Man of Indian aviation described it to me: “I hate to see food being served first to the passengers sitting in the first row, making the ones seated behind uncomfortable. It should be started from the back”.
Flying Air India for the past 40 years has never made me uncomfortable. Until now. The first flight of my life was from New Delhi to New York in 1978. Next, I was to Tokyo as a Delhi University lecturer. But I flew coach. Subsequently, as a journalist, I’ve taken both Indian Airlines and Air India over 500 times. It was the Atmanirbhar airline of my choice, my home in the skies serving the food of my choice and communicating with me in a manner and language I could relate to. Its international lounges were top class. Its cabin crew was an affable lot offering warm smiles, warmer food and the hottest wines. AI had the best landing rights globally. It is also among the world’s oldest surviving airlines.
But from 2000 onwards, rot set in. AI was bleeding millions daily, losing more than its ticket sales. It lost many dogfights with swanky private airlines with their gleaming interiors, smart stewardesses and delectable cuisine and drinks list. Its food became unpalatable; its ground staff surly, intolerant and arrogant— Air India has 15000 employees. Many governments made feeble attempts to leave the aviation business. Finally, in January 2022, the Tatas won the bid. While taking charge, N Chandrasekharan, Chairman, Tata Sons said: “We are excited to have Air India back in the Tata group and are committed to making this a world-class airline. I warmly welcome all the employees of Air India to our group and look forward to working together.”
Since the House of Tatas enjoys a sterling global reputation, the words were taken seriously by the civil aviation sector. The success of further privatisation of PSUs will depend on how the Tatas perform with their new acquisition. There seems to be something rotten in the state of Air India. During the past few months, I’ve flown Air India to destinations from Melbourne to New York, mostly in First Class. I’ve also flown Singapore Airlines and Emirates. Air India is still many air miles behind in hospitality and attitude. For example, while flying from New Delhi to San Francisco in first class, I found the flight map missing. While the crew was friendly, perhaps because of my past glory as a journalist, they could do little about the food, drinks or travelling comfort.
My wife and I are mostly vegetarians, but the menu was as inspiring as a roadside dhaba’s— jeera pulao, a potato cauliflower concoction and some lentils. The new Emirates economy class menu offers vegetable crêpes with sautéed mushrooms, tomato concassé, hash browns, and vegan spinach spring rolls. All top airlines give their first class passengers the option of ordering anything, anytime—but not Air India. During our 16 odd hour flights, the gastronomic highpoint was masala tea, although the food was loaded tens hours in advance and had become as tasty as wet cardboard. Surprisingly Air India’s first class menu appears to be the same across sectors. I couldn’t find a wine list on the tacky menu card. Emirates invested about $500 million in wine even way back in 2014; the wine list in its First Class cabin offers the rare Y d’Yquem and La Sirena Syrah 2005.
Etihad planes have more than one thousand hours of entertainment on their E-BOX In-Flight entertainment, which as the airline claims, “you’d have to fly around the world 25 times before running out of things to enjoy.” Air India’s unenjoyable entertainment list seems to be the afterthought of a sadistic film critic with Alzheimer’s: Aa Dekhe Zara, Agneepath, Besharam, Sahaabdar, Shivay and Son of Sardar. The English film options are even older, like A Star Is Born, Ambulance, Ms Congeniality, The Body Guard, Octopussy, and You Only Live Twice—both Sean Connery and Roger Moore, who played James Bond, are long dead. Today’s kids who thrive on Thor and Batman can only watch Chacha Choudhry reruns—so much for Air India catching them young. The seats haven’t changed shape or style for generations. In the airline business, seats are integral to product quality. Air India’s both first and business class seats are prehistorically emblematic of its pathetic PSU past. Even after getting the Tata imprimatur, AI’s flat beds in First class offer no privacy. In fact, a couple of seats don’t even incline all the way down. These were installed at the turn of the century by Shah Nawaz Husain, Vajpayee’s Civil Aviation minister, for R18 crore. Moreover, Air India’s lounges are either missing in many international airports or sport monstrous decor.
The airline’s New Zealand born CEO Campbell Wilson recently promised to make it “the carrier of choice globally”. For that, he must bench the idea of making money first and investing later. The Maharaja’s cachet is still alive for high flying Indian business tycoons. For Chandrasekharan and Campbell, the twin challenge is to exorcise the PSU ghost and revive the Tata magic to avoid being a pie in the sky. Of late, India’s former royalty is demanding its properties back. Now that the Tatas have got theirs, the Maharaja must renovate and revive his legacy to rule the skies at home and abroad. Or the airline can say “ta ta” to any dreams of reviving its tattered reputation.
Prabhu chawla
prabhuchawla@newindianexpress.com
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla

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