The airlines we deserve | Business Standard Column*****

Clipped from: https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/the-airlines-we-deserve-122122201236_1.html

Two stories this week showed what’s wrong with the attitudes of airlines and passengers

Vir Sanghvi

Two aviation stories that appeared in the media this week caught my eye. One was from abroad, and one from India. Both had to do with the relationship between passengers and airlines. (And dogs too, come to think of it.)

The first story concerns a family called the Millers. They were flying from London to Nashville, Tennessee, and wanted to take their dog Bluebell with them. British Airways said that the dog could not accompany them in the cabin. (Fair enough, I guess.) But it could fly to Nashville in the cargo hold.

Except that when the Millers went to the cargo area in Nashville to pick up Bluebell, they were given a different dog. When they complained that this was not Bluebell, a search for the missing dog was launched. It turned out that rather than sending Bluebell to America, British Airways had sent the dog to Saudi Arabia.

Eventually, after enduring these delays, being left in various cargo areas, and taking more international flights than necessary, the dog was returned to the Millers. Not surprisingly, Bluebell was enormously stressed out and began behaving strangely. The Millers are now suing for token compensation of $10,000, which is how the story made it to the international press.

For me, the part of the story that typifies the attitudes that dominate today’s aviation industry is the way British Airways responded. It forwarded requests for comment to IAG Cargo, a company that handles its cargo operations. IAG Cargo responded: “Whilst Bluebell’s route was longer than it should have been, we ensured that she was on the first flight back to Nashville from London Heathrow.”

Illustration: Binay Sinha

The dog was flown to Saudi Arabia from Heathrow, went back to Heathrow, spent time there, and then finally made it to Nashville, a journey of 63 hours in all. So yes, her flight was “longer than it should have been”.

It might help to bear in mind that IAG Cargo is not some external outfit British Airways had hired. IAG is the owner of British Airways. So, these basically are two arms of the same corporation. It’s just good PR for British Airways to adopt a nothing-to-do-with-us attitude.

Anybody who has travelled on a European airline recently or passed through a European airport will know that this is not an isolated incident. Carriers in Europe have stopped caring about people (or dogs). From their perspective, the lost dog was just lost baggage, and they misplace thousands of bags every month anyway.

The second aviation story comes from India. It is a video, shot by a passenger, of a distraught cabin crew member berating a man for insulting a cabin attendant and making her cry. The incident took place on an IndiGo flight on the Delhi-Istanbul sector.

The problem appears to be related to the meal service because the crew member tells the man, “My crew is crying because of you. Please try to understand, there is a count and counted meals are uplifted. We can only serve you what your boarding….”

The passenger is unperturbed. He tells her to stop shouting, says she is a servant, and asks her to ‘shut up’.

For me, the video is significant because it captures the way in which some Indian passengers treat airline staff. They are often rude, insulting, and occasionally abusive. Talk to any member of the cabin crew on any Indian airline and you will hear the worst horror stories. Almost always, the targets of abuse in the air are female staff members who are called ‘servants’ (as in this incident) or worse. On international flights, where alcohol is served, the behaviour is at its worst.

This is the dirty little secret of Indian aviation. We may or may not have the best airlines, but we certainly have the worst passengers. It is also significant that they will behave badly with the crew only when they travel on Indian carriers. They are far too intimidated to do anything like that on a European or American carrier. A man who is a tiger on Air India becomes a mouse when he travels British Airways or Lufthansa.

And it isn’t just the cabin crew that gets treated badly. When a flight is delayed, it is the counter staff (who have no role in deciding when the flight will take off) who are abused and shouted at. I have seen actual assaults on airline staff taking place at airports and watched airline employees being reduced to tears.

I quote these two stories because we are in the middle of many debates about aviation. The recurring theme in this debate is: “How do we raise Indian carriers to global standards”.

Well, global standards aren’t what they used to be. In much of the West, you can’t even say that airlines have gone to the dogs; they treat dogs badly too. Even on a bad day, IndiGo does a better job than say British Airways or Air France.

And, there is one factor we never include in these debates: The Indian passenger. While the vast majority of us are well-behaved and decent, there is a significant and nasty minority that makes it difficult for any Indian carrier to operate because there is no respect for the people who work for the airline and no acknowledgment of the dignity of labour.

We used to say that countries got the airlines they deserved. That’s not true any longer. Western countries deserve much better. And we in India are lucky. We get more than we sometimes deserve.

The writer is a journalist and TV presenter

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