The Nadir of Commercial Air Travel – India’s National Carrier, Air India

1940s-2007 Air India logo

Logo - Air India

Mascotte Air India / Air India Mascot

Air India's Maharajah

Once upon a time, rather long ago, Air India, started by the doyen of Indian industrialists post independence, J.R.D. Tata, epitomized the cutting edge of air travel in Asia. A number of airlines in various countries in South, South East and Middle East Asia, followed their example in terms of how to run a commercial airlines efficiently and profitably. Its standards of customer service as well as its innovative ad campaigns, characterized by the lovable Maharaja, were closely watched and often emulated by competitors. India seemed well on its way to becoming the standard-setter in Asia of how a commercial airlines is to be run.

This proved to be too much of a good thing to Indian political leaders who somehow couldn’t quite get J.R.D. Tata to bend to their wishes and possibly to contribute to their burgeoning coffers of ill-gotten wealth. Thus Air India came to be nationalized in the late 1960s, much to the understandable chagrin of J.R.D. Tata. From then onwards it has steadily stumbled down the dark treacherous slopes replete with mismanagement, inefficiencies, losses and a poor safety record to name just a few of the landmarks on the way down. It’s sister organization, the national domestic carrier, Indian Airlines, largely had its back broken when the domestic air-travel sector was opened up to private carriers in the early 90s, thus ending its long monopoly.

Air India (Erstwhile Indian Airlines) A319 tax...

Air India about to be grounded?

Ever since then, as corporate entities,  Air India, its budget airlines subsidiary, Air India Express and Indian Airlines have stumbled from one disastrous performance result to the next, year in and year out. Merging Indian Airlines with Air India hardly helped.  As a result of frequent changes at the top where a succession of clueless bureaucrats warmed the hot seat for varying lengths of time, accountability and standard operating procedures went steeply south and became noticeable largely by their absence. Customer orientation and service, never quite its strong point for a number of years, degenerated further into outright customer harassment and disservice.

The stories about Air India’s missteps and poor performance on virtually most counts that matter could take up several chapters. The links below will give you a general idea though about the state of affairs at India’s national carrier.

Court of Inquiry into recent AI Express crash at Mangalore

Financial Crunch Forces Air India to Defer Salaries

Interview with the M.D. of Air India, Arvind Jadhav

Poor Customer Service : Hard Disk Stolen

My recent experience with Air India has only served to confirm to me, coupled with all the other news, that the carrier is indeed a terminal case and no amount of artificial resuscitation or infusion of oxygen would possibly bring about a revival any time in the near future.

The first of the edited messages below was sent to all concerned people in several Air India offices, including senior managers, responsible mandarins in the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Managing Director’s office.  Needless to mention, there wasn’t even an acknowledgement, let alone a response.

This is a message to all concerned at various Air-India offices with copies to the management and the ministry of Civil Aviation which oversees Air India & its subsidiary, AI Express.

I refer to the sequence of correspondences below, stating that while the zzzzz office of Air – India had referred my complaint and entirely justified request to Air India’s Mumbai office, it has now been turned down more than a week after it was first made and hence I needed to effect the needed change in dates by making the amendments online over the web, after paying the applicable penalties and charges.

I must say that the final decision taken at your end is extremely disappointing and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. I shall confine myself to a few pertinent observations for all concerned.

It is now amply clear to me that customer orientation is an attribute entirely missing across Air-India and its subsidiaries. If your prevailing philosophy happens to be that you are doing a favour to customers who decide to fly with you, especially in economy and budget categories, then I am afraid you are closing your eyes to competition and the realities of the marketplace.

I am surprised that an issue fairly minor in all respects had to be batted around from one office to another over days when any office of AI and any concerned manager should normally have been empowered to take the necessary decisions and resolve it speedily. In a competitive world, the speed with which a customer-oriented organization reacts to customer complaints and handles exception situations are often the determinant factors in giving it an edge over its competition. Conversely, lack of such speed and excessive, stifling bureaucracy at various levels places the organization at a major disadvantage vis-a-vis its competition. If you have been steadily losing out to your competition and bleeding financially too, you don’t need to look much further than the way you treat your customers and their genuine issues and complaints as one of the prime reasons for the same.

You have also demonstrated a lack of concern for fair and ethical business practices throughout this particular episode. While I generally have neither the time nor the inclination to write detailed e-mails on various issues, I took time out and did so immediately after encountering the problem, hoping that doing so would help you to look into and resolve the issue promptly and speedily. Nothing of the sort happened and it was clear that you either weren’t bothered in the least about a problem which arose primarily owing to a glitch in your system or did not quite believe what I had stated. While I do realize that a small percentage of customers do try to take advantage of situations and take recourse to less than honest practices occasionally, treating all passengers as dishonest ones is really tantamount to shooting yourself in the foot. Trust is a two-way street and if you do not trust your customers as a general rule, how do you ever expect any customer to repose trust in your airlines or your services?

Most Indians, whether based in India or outside, love their country and would like to support its institutions, provided such institutions treat them equitably and fairly and demonstrate at least a reasonable level of customer orientation and service. However when you treat an issue like this one, which is both minor in terms of its scope and financial implication and which arose primarily because of a problem at your end, with such disregard, apathy and callousness, how do you expect most customers to continue to patronize your airlines and repose trust in you?

Air India M.D.

Some days after this message, the carrier quietly rescheduled the concerned flights, re-timing one from the morning to the evening hours and changing the return flight from the original date chosen to the early morning hours of the next day.  I received an e-mail, marked to possibly the other passengers on the rescheduled flight as well, informing me about the change and asking me to do a rescheduling of the original flight which had now been cancelled by Air India. The fact that the e-mail was marked to other passengers openly as well, disclosing at least their partial IDs to me and to all the others addressed in the mail as well, demonstrated scant regard for security and privacy norms which any self-respecting and reasonably managed carrier would observe invariably. Utterly bemused and frustrated by the way in which Air – India conducts its business, I could only express myself through another e-mail, sent to all concerned managers of AI, select senior management staff and the M.D.’s office. Edited excerpts from that mail are carried below.

You recently made me do a rescheduling by paying a penalty when the initial, unintended & wrong date on the return sector was on account of a glitch in your system which I informed you about immediately after it occurred. Since the details were already communicated to you earlier,  I will not make the effort to recount them again.

You have now quietly rescheduled both the xxxxx and the yyyy sectors of my flight and have just sent out an e-mail to me  asking me to reschedule my return  flight accordingly. The message incidentally does not mention that the xxxx sector has also been rescheduled to late evening hours, which I discovered while rescheduling my yyyy sector as asked.

Since the rescheduling now is on account of these sudden changes to flight schedules, you are quietly allowing passengers to do this without incurring any charges (coming from AI & AI Express that can indeed be considered a bonanza which might make some customers scream with delight). However when I was forced to reschedule my flight earlier, on account of a glitch in your online system while booking over the web, no such consideration was shown despite my pointing out the problem immediately. You have compounded the situation by unilaterally cancelling the rescheduled return flight, as I discovered when I logged-in online. I am left with no other option but to do a rescheduling to the revised flight timing in the early hours of the morning of the next day. Yet the penalty I had to incur while doing the rescheduling earlier,  for no fault of my own, stays and isn’t even reversed. How unfair is that?

The way you handle your business is a nightmare at least to customers like me. I suspect your ongoing indifference to customer concerns and your  utter neglect of even the most basic customer needs is a horror story many others have experienced many a times. I shall not even mention the several problems you have now caused me by forcing me to reschedule because I am convinced that even narrating them to customarily deaf ears is a futile exercise which isn’t even worth the time and effort.

I am afraid I can’t continue to patronize AI or AI Express or any of its subsidiaries under the circumstances in future. In fact, by way of public service, I think I must spread the word to all discerning customers, be they Indians or people of other nationalities, about what a nightmarish and occasionally horrifying experience it could be to fly with AI or any of its subsidiaries.

Minister for Civil Aviation, Praful Patel

Guess that says it all. While I expect no response from the airlines as usual, this post would have served some purpose if it helps inform you about what a ghoulish experience flying with Air India or any of its subsidiaries can be. If you want to do a good turn to friends, relatives or associates and pass on a warning about carriers they must not fly with, you could share the contents of this post with them to substantiate your well-meaning advice to them.

An Update:

Three weeks after the initial incident mentioned, in response to my mails to all operational personnel concerned and the top brass of AI and AI Express, I received this reply from the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of AI Express. The message is reproduced verbatim below. I have no further comments to offer and would leave the reader to draw his own conclusions.


Dear Mr.Raja Mitra,

We appreciate the effort that you have taken to apprise us of the problems that have taken place and assure you that we sincerely regret that you have had to face such a problem.

Whilst understanding your unhappiness at the response provided by AI Express, we may like to suggest that customer relationship building is an extremely important part of our business and we certainly take your inputs in a constructive manner.

We do hope and look forward to seeing you on board AI Express in the very near future.

Thanking  you,

Capt.Pawan Arora
Chief Operating Officer
AI Express

Copy: Chief of Commercial, AI Express – FYI & NA
Copy: ED-HQ


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  1. #1 by Anonymous on October 29, 2010 - 12:03 PM

    Air India has been a sad case for quite long and it is really doubtful if the airline can be turned out any time in the near future. They just don’t give a damn about the large volume of complaints that they receive. You can see some of them here.

  2. #2 by M. Ramesh on October 29, 2010 - 12:06 PM

    Air India? Who would ever want to fly with them. Even the ministers, MPs & government babus, given a choice would prefer other airlines.

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