East West Airlines, ModiLuft, Span Air, Sahara, Air Deccan, Damania, NEPC; the list is probably much longer than this – (VIF Airways – does anyone remember this airline?) but suffice to say these are some of private airlines that went bust in India in the last two and half decades.
My brother Mohan, sent me a message yesterday asking ‘is Jet Airways going the King Fisher way?’ I replied, “I hope not; that is one airline which always treated customers well; but for Jet Airways we would never have known what airline hospitality is all about.”
From the day Mrs. Gandhi took a decision to nationalize the airlines ran by Tatas, for about 3 decades the only way to fly in India was to go by the state-run Indian Airlines. Of course, only the super rich, the senior corporate executives and the Government babus could afford to fly. And also the airlines staff who could always free-load. For others it was only a dream. The only time you flew was, when there was a bereavement in family and you made the trip to attend the funeral which would have costed more than couple of months your salary.
Monopoly especially the Indian one bred arrogance and Indian Airline was no exception. More often than not, you had to know someone in the airlines office to get a ticket as the demand was always more than supply . I have seen the owner of one of the companies I worked, begging a clerk in Hyderabad Indian Airlines office to put him on top of the waiting list to get on to a flight to Madras (now Chennai).
Things changed when the economy opened up in the early nineties and The Government started allowing private airlines to fly. The earliest entrants bit the dust soon after they started (Damania, East West etc). They probably did not know how to run an airline. Also the Government put so many restrictions and levied exorbitant parking and other fees which made running an airline not commercially viable. The Government first said, they are not private airlines, but only air taxi operators and kept changing the rules for flying.
Couple of incidents would explain how chaotic it was during the early days. Once I arrived at Mumbai airport 20 minutes before the scheduled departure of flight to Pune (East West Airlines) and enquired at the ticket counter if I could catch a flight. The booking clerk talked to ‘Check-in’ counter people and issued me a ticket. When I went to check in, the boarding was already completed, but they asked the ground crew to hold on for sometime, issued me a boarding pass and asked me to rush to the aircraft. Today if you arrive even one minute later than the 45 minutes before departure time, they won’t issue a boarding pass. Or for that matter, by the time you cleared the security, the plane would have departed. Those days you could just breeze through security. Good old days! But it also explains the chaotic ways the airlines were operating.
Indian Airlines would not serve alcohol in domestic flights. It’s true for all domestic flights even today. But the rules were not clearly written down in the early days. So Damania Airways announced that they would serve free alcohol in domestic flights. In an early morning flight (6 AM), there was so much demand for the spirit, the stock ran out (who would have thought people would guzzle hot liquor in the early hours) which resulted in a ruckus and unruly behaviour from passengers. The captain had to threaten the passengers, if they did not settle down, he would go back to Mumbai. Angry questions were raised in parliament (about Indian culture and serving alcohol), The Government put a stop to it and all domestic flights become spirit free.
Amidst all these chaos, Jet Airways was born and made flying a pleasure. The airline was promoted by Mr. Naresh Goel, who was running an airline travel agency. He must have known how passengers were treated by airlines across the world and made sure Jet Airways did not fall in the category. It was said of him that he could reel off every single international airline route, departure and arrival time from memory. Today, you can search Google flight to get this information. This was pre world-wide web and internet times. He was passionate about flying and the airline he started reflected it.
For starters, the airline was run efficiently; there were no ‘last minute’ cancellations or inordinate delays. Passengers were treated courteously. Yes it was still mostly restricted people travelling on business. Personal travel had not taken off. The aircrafts were new, and the food was excellent (I mean measuring by airline food standards). My first boss and mentor Mr. Lobo summed it up saying, in Jet Airways, the food was hot when they served a meal and the drink (pepsi or coke) was cold when they served a beverage. It was a refreshing change for people who were used to garbage served as food in Indian Airlines.
Indian Airlines would win any award for most unfriendly airline just for their attitude towards passengers. The air hostesses believed that they were doing us a favour by letting us inside their aircrafts and we should not expect anything more. Once, on a morning flight to Singapore, as soon as the flight attained required altitude and levelled off, an air hostess got off to serve the drinks to passengers. She threw two cans of beer at every passenger and when I said, “No thanks” she looked at me as if I was an alien from Mars who just landed inside the plane. She must have thought passengers travelled with them only for couple of free beers.
Of all the airlines I travelled, I would rate Jet Airways the best in terms of passenger relations. There were airlines which were efficient and the staff courteous. Singapore Airlines was a classic example. The staff were polite, the food great, the aircrafts new and almost always flew on time. But I always felt they lacked warmth. They always went by the book. It’s something like this. Have you seen the Duchess of Kent talking to ball boys and girls after the championship match at Wimbledon? She would shake hands, say Hello and speak a few words to them. Out of 10 or 12 ball boys and girls she would speak to every 3rd or 4th one but always made sure one of the boys/girls is person of colour. While watching it on TV, you could accurately predict who would she talk to next. It’s more for political correctness. Singapore Airlines did the same and you could see through their artificial ‘Hi and Hello.’
Jet Airways treated all the passengers with warmth and the regular travellers were treated like kings and Queens (the platinum card members). The staff at check in counter would remember your name and during the flight, the air hostesses would come and ask if you would like to have an extra dessert or a drink.
I used to fly to Singapore to attend my MBA classes in NUS and caught up with last minute assignments during the flight. Even when I could not get an upgrade to Business Class, I would request them to serve me food later as I would be typing furiously on my laptop. They always obliged.
That they went an extra mile to make passengers happy made them special. Once Uday, my boss from Betz days and I were scheduled to go from Pune to Chennai. The flight was kept getting delayed and at 6 PM in the evening (the flight was scheduled to leave at 2 PM) they informed that the flight was cancelled. I was furious and told them we had an important meeting the next day in Chennai. They offered to send us by road to Mumbai and put us on flight from there. The only problem was Mumbai – Pune road was a nightmare (before the express highway came in) and it would take anything between 4 to 14 hours (depending on traffic jams) to get to Mumbai by road. There was a flight leaving to Delhi at that time. I asked them to put us in the flight to Delhi and fly us the next day morning from Delhi to Chennai. So they flew us to Delhi, put us in a nice hotel and flew us the next morning to Chennai (all at their cost) and we made to the meeting on time.
The other incident I remember vividly is, Renuka and I were returning from Kochi to Mumbai after spending time in a resort in Idukki dam, (in the news since last two days as all the dam’s gates were opened after 40 years because of incessant rains in Kerala); the Kochi’s new airport was recently built and there were no lounges for frequent travellers. Only the business class lounge was operating. I asked the Jet Airways staff if he could do something as we arrived at the airport after a long drive. He took our boarding passes went to talk to someone and he came back within few minutes holding business class boarding passes, lounge coupons and wished us on our anniversary. It was Renuka’s first business class travel and cherishes the experience even today.
Last month, I left my power bank in an Indigo (Indigo – Tagline – The Noisy Airline) airline flight and realized my mistake as soon as I reached home. I called the airline who told me I would get a reply in 48 hours. Nothing happened. During my return flight, I told the Indigo staff that I was expecting at least a reply if not the power bank itself. She made some phone calls and said “no sir, it was not there.” I told her years back I used to forget the book I was reading (pre iPod/iPad era) in Jet Airways and they always found it. Once, after boarding the aircraft, I remembered that I forgot my book at the security. I told the air hostess who called the ground staff and he came rushing with the book before the aircraft door was closed. It’s not the value of the product but the efforts they took and the care they showed that used to make Jet Airways stand out and made them the preferred airline in India.
I am not an aviation industry expert to explain what caused Jet Airways downfall. One of the reason could be when the low-cost airlines took off, Jet Airways thought this would be the future and acquired Air Sahara (a low-cost airline), paying a huge price 500 Million USD in an all cash deal, which must have drained their cash. Also their brand must have suffered. I used to tell Jet Airways staff, “Companies start at a lower base and try to expand. Like Toyota which made cheap passenger cars and graduated to Lexus. What you are doing is akin to BMW starting with super bikes and trying to get into moped (small 50 cc bikes) market. You lose your premium segment and you can never succeed in low-cost models.” Jet Airways must have fallen between two stools (the business traveller and the budget travellers). The same thing happened to King Fisher as well who went down the drain, after they bought Air Deccan, a low cost carrier. Of course, in King Fisher case it’s not the main reason for their downfall.
A recent audit report of Jet Airways suggests that their net worth is totally eroded and it’s not a growing concern now (the fundamental for running a business). I hope, even if by a miracle they come out of this. Running an airline is a difficult business. I once told an acquaintance during a Vipassana program (who was complaining about his investment in Jet Airways has gone bad), that no airline ever made money continuously except probably Southwest Airlines and he should dump his stock. Jet Airways initial offering was around 1100 Rs and is worth 280 Rs today, after more than 10 years. (This is probably the only investment advice I ever gave in my life).
The joy of flying is gone long back from our lexicon (only the fear of flying – not the Erica Jong kind) and airline travel has become a nightmare around the world with increased security measures, cramped coach classes (cattle class as they call it) mile long queue at immigration, bone-weary and irritated passengers. In India, even the newly built airports look like overcrowded railway stations/fish market/mofussil bus stands (take your pick). Amidst all the hardships only a friendly airline can make passengers smile and I hope this blog does not end up as an ‘obit’ to the airline.