Flying high

Published : Apr 25, 2008 00:00 IST

The new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport at Shamshabad in Hyderabad. It boasts a 4,260-metre-long runway, said to be the longest in South Asia.-NOAH SEELAM/AFP

The new Rajiv Gandhi International Airport at Shamshabad in Hyderabad. It boasts a 4,260-metre-long runway, said to be the longest in South Asia.-NOAH SEELAM/AFP

As Civil Aviation Minister, Praful Patel has overseen the completion of two new international airports and the merging of Air India and Indian Airlines.

IN an essay I had written some years ago for another publication, I had highlighted the dismal performance of what were then Air India and Indian Airlines. I had also said that the Minister sat in his air-conditioned office and did nothing. The first statement still holds good, sadly; but I have to eat a generous portion of humble pie about the second.

There are a number of Ministers in the Central government who have, in the past few years, done virtually nothing except develop the arrogance that seems to come with their positions, but Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel is not, clearly, one of them. It must be something of a record that he is the only Civil Aviation Minister who has overseen the completion of two new international airports in the country, which are, going by media reports, world class. In the next two years, both Mumbai and Delhi will also have world-class airports, which will be much bigger than the new airports in Hyderabad and Bangalore.

Perhaps, the most enduring achievement of Praful Patel is the manner in which he coped with the explosive increase in air traffic and in the number of private airlines despite the fact that infrastructure was, and in many places still is, of Second World War vintage. True, there are many problems still to be resolved, and harassed passengers at different airports will testify to that. But everyone will admit that a major and enormous change is taking place, of which the new airports in Hyderabad and Bangalore are just two examples.

There are, as one is told by the media, several problems and irritants. Roads that connect the new airports in Hyderabad and Bangalore are not ready. There is hardly any public transport worth the name to the airports, though the builders of the airports claim that they will run taxis or provide some kind of public transport system. There are complaints that there are not enough immigration counters and X-ray machines for checking baggage.

The media have also carried the story of the shambles that is Heathrow airports Terminal 5, the state-of-the-art terminal meant exclusively for British Airways. The baggage delivery system does not work, checking in is a thoroughly confusing affair, and things are so bad that British Airways has apologised for the mess. It will not do, therefore, to point to all that is wrong at the new airports. One has to look at the fact that they are there, which is achievement enough.

However, the way in which the renovation of Delhi airport is going on is another matter altogether. The ordeal of passengers is akin to torture. Having to force my way into the airport with thousands of others through one narrow gate where three policemen wanted to see my passport and ticket, then exhausted and panting, having to look for an X-ray machine for my baggage, all one can say is that the transition can be managed better. Clever full-page advertisements in journals and newspapers will not do. In the domestic terminal the stench of urine is unbearable, and on complaining to a lady who, one was told, was the manager, the reply one got was, We are aware of the problem.

The private company that employs her is expected to deliver unto us an airport that it claims will be akin to one of the seven wonders of the world. It should take lessons from the Delhi Metro on how a massive project in the heart of the city can be put in place with the inhabitants being subjected to as little inconvenience as possible. It means one has to think about the common man, the ordinary passenger. Being aware of the problem is not enough.

Civil aviation is no longer the preserve of the affluent; in most airports one can see that the number of first-time flyers is growing, and a new generation of passengers is taking to flying as a cost-effective means of travelling, even as Railway Minister Lalu Prasad tries desperately to win them back to his trains.

But why should they go back? They now have, by and large, the means to pay the astonishingly low fares being offered by some airlines to travel from one place to another at a fraction of the time train travel takes, and if there is a degree of chaos at the airports which there is it is nothing compared with the raucous, pitiless rough and tumble of railway stations, places not meant for the faint-hearted or the old and the ill.

For all his rhetoric, Lalu Prasad must know that the kind of service that is provided on his trains, including the vaunted Shatabdi Expresses, cannot compare with the service in aircraft, whichever the airline. The abiding impression that trains give is of carriages that are dirty and unhygienic. Using the toilets is an ordeal that one can undergo only by repeatedly telling oneself that if one does not actually touch anything, one will come away without some kind of horrific disease.

It is not that the carriages are not modern, that the seats are not cushioned. It is an attitude that affects everyone from the man in charge of a train, who used to be called a guard and is now called a train supervisor or something similar, to the men who serve the food or clear the used trays. There is perfunctoriness, an obsession with getting the job over with, and no conception at all of what cleanliness, orderliness and neatness are.

They have their counterparts in what is now Air India and used to be Indian Airlines and Air India not so long ago. The surliness and offensive behaviour has gone from the cabin crew, going by ones own experience of the past year or two, and is confined to the ground staff, especially those at the check-in counters. One needs a certain amount of determination and steely focus on ones objective getting a boarding pass to face up to the sour, hostile expressions that adorn the faces of the staff at the check-in counters. But in the aircraft they are friendly enough.

But friendliness and smiles apart, the interiors of the airlines aircraft are a shambles. Punctuality is not a strong point. One has come across torn seat pockets and stained seats and endured delays that have run into hours. As everyone who has flown by the airlines and its earlier avatars will testify, no explanation is ever given for a delay nor is the exact revised time of departure announced.

There is a very valued tradition that the airline has: the captain of the aircraft never ever speaks to the passengers, while every captain on all other airlines makes it a point to do so. It may be a tradition that Air India takes pride in maintaining, but they ought surely to realise that a word from the captain goes a long way in reassuring the passengers, calming them down when the delay has been exceptionally trying.

Air India pilots will probably say that they are there to fly planes, not do a PR job for the airline. No one denies that they are there to fly the plane, but a 10-second announcement or chat with the passengers is surely possible, as it is on other airlines.

It is here that Praful Patel seems to have met his Waterloo. In building the new, merged airline into one that is a synonym for efficient, punctual service. It could not have been done in a few years, true, but the process could have been started. But he has succeeded in doing what was once thought to be impossible: merging the two airlines. He also has, as its chief, a fine, committed and dynamic man who will not compromise with what is second-best.

It may just happen that even with this giant airline Praful Patel may pull off the impossible and make it an airline that the country can be proud of. It will, of course, mean that one would have to have another helping of that large dish called humble pie, but one will do so with pleasure if the results are what one hopes they will be.

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