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Airy-fairy Air India? Or is the new Maharajah the real deal?

Jayant ShuklaSpicy food, spicier gossip, and overflowing toilets as Air India's Maharajah — now back with its founding Tatas — speeds from San Francisco to Delhi.

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by Jayant Shukla

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Air India's JRD Tata in the good old days

Air India was a chic and much emulated airline under its visionary founder JRD Tata. Now the airline is back in its old home again. One writer's nostalgic flight from USA to India.

IN March 2022, I joined the ranks of the slow brigade: walkers, deaf aids, billowing saris, long beards, haggard faces, caftans and kirpans, together with 41 other wheelchair assisted passengers on the 16-hour flight from San Francisco to New Delhi.

In the '60s, my teen years, Reita Faria, an Air India hostess became the first Indian Miss World. Around the same time, I took my first Air India flight to London, via Rome and Frankfurt in an Air India B-707. Yes of course, I fell in love with every single Air India hostess on that flight — which hot ‘hormoned’ young blood wouldn’t?

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The aircraft exuded an Elizabeth Arden fragrance, (which I gifted every girlfriend since), as we were welcomed aboard by the designer dressed, fine boned fairies and sideburned young stewards. Most of us carried special Air India attaché cases and flight bags. Ladies had their hard vanity cases, popular back in the day and it all felt like a very special party with the well-heeled gentry of the times.

Needless to say, that first flight set the standard of excellence in my youthful mind, for the several hundred other airline flights I was to take in the decades that followed. It was classy and professional —  par excellence.  At Rome’s Fumicino airport, I looked wistfully at the fairies disappearing in their special little bus, while like a forlorn lover, I waited for the usual airline bus that would take the rest of us to the 'centro citta'.

{Too bad the silk saris are covered up in antiviral protective white hospital gowns. Suddenly I feel I’m in a hospital ward with all the balding old guys...

Off and on in the past 40 years, I flew Air India when I had to. Late departures, unannounced cancellations, worn out seat cushions and indifferent ground crew all contributed to my cynical view of the jaded Maharajah’s palace in the sky of last choice.

Back in present day, I pored over the flight options on the web and was impressed that only Air India and United offered a non-stop flight to New Delhi from San Francisco. As hopeful as any Indian during the cricket world cup and delighted at the recent return of the prodigal Maharajah to the Tata fold, I had no hesitation in clicking on the Air India option. The prices were roughly the same though the Air India timings were just perfect: leaving mid-morning, arriving mid-afternoon.

I found myself in the Air India queue at SFO International, hobbling forward with an injured knee and cane. The Indian meeter-greeter kindly pushed me to the front of the long line where I was asked to produce my printed Air Suvidha form. When I showed only email confirmation from the website, the customer service girl wrinkled her brow and turned to her manager. I overheard, “Another problem case”.

Without a word, Manager Sunny “air dropped” my Air Suvidha form and returned with a printed copy. Where once a major issue would have developed around non-compliance, the savvy manager and his technology saved the day. So far “brilliant”, I said to myself.

The wheelchair folk are given first dibs at the aircraft and the race is on. Thanks to my Filipina wheelchair attendant I was first in the queue to board with the 40 other invalids behind me, waving their canes and muttering.

Now all I had to do was to change seats so that my bad leg could stick out in the aisle. I sat down in the seat I wanted to be in and ….no problem: the great Indian “adjust” worked like a dream. I can’t imagine the United Airlines staff being so flexible, so quickly.

Seat adjusted, I sank into the comforting sounds of shrieking kids, Punjabi, Tamil, Bengali accents and loud last-minute phone calls. A middle aged engineer with that distinctive Punjabi American lingua franca slipped into the seat beside me. He and his wife are off on a pilgrimage and I’m grateful for a friendly time-pass companion for the 16 hours ahead. (Of course, my formidable noise cancelling headphones are at hand should I require a quick respite from the friendship).

So far it’s been the same familiar Air India: cranky website, accommodative staff, somewhat grubby seat, grimy armrest and console; the hubbub of India in this microcosm. 
Too bad the silk saris are covered up in antiviral protective white hospital gowns. Suddenly I feel I’m in a hospital ward with all the balding old guys and white-haired grannies on all sides. Overseas Indians know that on Air India, food and language will not be a travel hindrance for their elderly kin folk. I have joined their ranks as a fully paid up ‘old guy’.

On take-off, hands are folded in prayer all around me. All kinds of religious books are being consulted and rosaries are being furiously counted off. Children are mercifully muted. The captain makes his usual unintelligible message shrouded by the static and I say to myself: “All is familiar and well in my world”.

But I wonder how the new Air India culture will handle our unruly hoi polloi. Restrooms are wrecked even before take-off and I spy suspicious spillages and stains that sully the proud Boeing that came off the assembly line in pristine Seattle. Not really Air India’s fault. After all, in which other airline restroom would you ever find a sign that implores passengers not to flush a night suit or tablecloth down the loo! Just one small indication of the battering that Air India planes and flight crew have to defend themselves against.

Airborne at last and the first act begins: snacks and drinks (what happened to the earbuds and boiled sweets before take-off?). Wretched bag of inflated peanuts won’t open. Another hallmark of government planes and trains. Should I expect any better, considering where it was put together… some likely untraceable pop-up address: Survey No. 123, Behind Essar Petrol Pump , NH8A, District Ahmedabad. I shudder to think which oil the peanuts were fried in.

Next — the main act. Lunch and dinner never fail to delight on Air India, but woe is you if you don’t like spicy food. You never need to fish out your packets of salt and pepper or hot sauce to liven up boil washed food that other airlines serve for calmer palates. 

More peanuts, this time good ole Planters. I eagerly peel open the container of rich chicken curry and a heavenly potato vegetable goo. Oops... the food tray has arthritic knees and can’t take the strain. It’s a tense angle at which I balance my food while I spoon it into my salivating mouth. 

Never figured out why they give you a dinner roll when Indian style, you have a pile of rice. Scarfed down the probiotic yoghurt in an attempt to plaster the gut and then totally abandoned the strict sugar-free diet to the heavenly milky sweet dessert. Never order the dishwasher drained coffee but always enjoy the tea.

Seats back and relax. Darn! Bring your own entertainment system. Theirs has crashed again and it’s a 16-hour flight. Perhaps it’s just back from the Ukraine where all those rescued Indian students were too shell shocked to want any more excitement in their lives. No working power outlets to keep Netflix going on your own phone, no inflight magazine to pass the time.

Now’s the cue to chat with ones neighbours, I suppose. The engineer and his wife ply me with much information about diets, wellness, their guru and a most welcome homemade fenugreek paratha. I want to return their generosity, but the only thing in my pocket is a box of breath fresheners and that may sour the relationship. I politely decline the offer of a second paratha even though my saliva is in free-flow at the aroma from the packet wrapped tin foil.

Now we’ve lost reading lights, but never mind, there’s no one to tick us off for congregating in all the normally forbidden areas. Where once sandwiches and other delights would be left out for those claustrophobic gaps, now there are opened bottles of water. Just as well.., who wants a bloated belly at journeys end? Friendships are made, solutions to the problems of the world are floated, sad family situations are discussed with people who were strangers till a few minutes ago.

A huge bag of trash filled to the brim by mid journey collects where the cabin staff should normally be standing. Except, they are chatting and sleeping in their own quarters leaving one sole very hardworking northeastern girl left behind to ferry water to the midsection of the plane. She handles all the strident demands with unwarranted gentleness. I am impressed, though increasingly concerned that rats don’t start jumping out of the trash bag. Serious.

Shapeless old ladies whose waistlines have long given up the ghost patrol the aisles where once svelte swishing saris would waft by bearing imagined promise. Covid has been an overused excuse to cut service levels. The Maharajah must be turning in his great Jumbo in the Sky. 

Heartening to see an old Sikh gent in religious garb and his Muslim contemporary sporting a flaming red beard, nodding their heads in agreement over many sideways discussions.  Give me the cattle class on Air India any day. Good food, heartening scenes of the diversity of India and a feeling of community unparalleled in the coldly efficient modern airlines of today. Old Air India would have had the highfalutin ladies of the genteel well-off ‘bhadralok’ kind avoiding any eye or other contact.

Well, what can I say? This is definitely not the advertised Dreamliner. It feels more like an old Airbus, probably ex Indian Airlines, with ample evidence of duct tape and bits of string holding it together. Nevertheless, its mission halfway across the world has been successful.

Soon there is a mad scramble for the loos precipitated by the somewhat early announcement some two hours before landing that they would be locked to prevent passenger movement in the aisles. Good heavens! Bring out the cattle prods next.

Missing cabin crew are resurrected from their sleeping quarters demurely bidding us to return with folded hands. The only one I want to thank is the tireless northeastern lass who patiently continues to clean up and serve as the other crew strut the aisles like preening crows.

From an archaic website to aircraft desperately in need of renewal, Tata and Sons may be Tata and Grandsons by the time the turnaround is complete. The article I read on Air India’s revival talked of teams of experts from every discipline being formed to turnaround the airline. May I humbly suggest the new management starts by taking seriously, the feedback passengers can give you for free?

Now, mercifully released from Delhi airport's suspicious immigration officers, I am stuck in heavy traffic. A lumbering Delhi Transport bus bullies its way ahead. The ragged bodywork looks like it was also pressed into service in evacuating our citizens from the Ukraine. Peering inside I see the same haggard faces and the pushing and shoving going on. All is strangely reminiscent of the plane I just came from. No culture shock here. A seamless travel experience.

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