You can see the change from the air
May 8, 2008
This was published in the New Indian Express on May 7th at
Here’s my original copy, as it was very slightly edited by them:
Air travel as metaphor
By Rajeev Srinivasan
Something odd is happening in the friendly skies these days: It may well be more pleasant now to take a flight in India than in the US! That would sound like sacrilege to those accustomed to the customer-friendliness, so to speak, of the erstwhile Indian Airlines, but a little de-regulation has gone a long way in India. Airlines are actually competing on the basis of providing value to passengers, not ‘rationing’ scarce seats.
On the other hand, high fuel costs, excessive competition, a lax regulatory environment, and the burden of aged equipment and high health-care and pension obligations are forcing American airlines to cut back on customer amenities. Not to mention on required aircraft maintenance. The result is delays, inconvenience, and general passenger frustration. The annual Airline Quality Survey this year gave a minus 2.16 score to the airlines, the worst in two decades.
This, in a way, is a repeat of what has happened in telecommunications. Arguably, cellular telephony is better, cheaper and more leading-edge than in America: Once again, in India, a little deregulation has removed the dead hand of socialist central planning, enabling entrepreneurs to provide a real service and make some money.
Airlines in the US have been cutting corners; this led to the cancellation of 3,000 American Airlines flights in April citing safety concerns. Several airlines have folded, including Aloha, Skybus and ATA, thus reducing flights to Hawaaii.
The actual experience of air travel in the US is made worse by the ordeals in the airports themselves. The security check is a nightmare, as you are forced to take off your shoes (even those worn by infants), your belt, every other item containing any metal, your jacket, your laptop from your carry-on bag, and put all these in plastic bins.
This would be half-tolerable if it weren’t for the thugs, also known as Transportation Safety Administration employees or contractors, who chivvy you along and bully you with barely-concealed disdain. In Newark airport, I was in line behind an old Indian woman and her daughter, who were shouted at and forced to take off every item of gold jewelry, including thin gold chains, bangles and rings, which obviously startled them.
Indian customs officials are infamous for being obnoxious, but these security people are a cut above. There was an infamous prison experiment at Stanford by Professor Zimbardo, wherein he randomly assigned a few students to be prison guards and others to be prisoners. Surprisingly soon, they took to their roles with gusto, and the guards became totalitarian bullies. This psychology may be in action here too.
Once you get on the plane, the torment does not end. I have sat on the tarmac in a tiny Embraer for two hours for a one-hour flight from Washington, DC to Newark. Congestion, the lack of well-trained air-traffic controllers, all this takes a toll. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t one of those who sat for ten hours on some tarmac last year on a Jetblue flight after a winter storm played havoc with their schedules.
The in-flight experience, too, is nothing to write home about. Leg-room is minimal; and if you are unfortunate enough to be wedged next to a large person, you (and they) can hardly breathe. I had a colleague who was forced by an airline to buy a second seat because he was grossly fat. He went to court, and the court agreed with the airline, no doubt pitying the passenger forced to sit next to him.
In-flight service on American airlines (United, Continental, American, Delta) has been pathetic for a long time. The food (including some kind of mystery meat not found anywhere else on earth) is deplorable; if you opt for vegetarian, you get singularly unappetizing boiled vegetables and quantities of cardboard-like lettuce. Fortunately, most airlines have now dispensed with food altogether. The only problem is that people bring on board large salads and sandwiches which they consume throughout the five-hour coast-to-coast flight.
The less said about the flight attendants the better. I once had a neighbor who was senior cabin crew on the San Francisco-Tokyo route for United. She was a battle-axe, and I dread to think of the poor passengers she was supposed to be helping. A lot of it has to do with age, and she was in her late forties. Without being age-ist, it is obvious that the body cannot take the wear-and-tear of being constantly on one’s feet, endemic jet-lag, and being professionally nice, unless one is about twenty-three.
Realizing this, Southeast Asian and East Asian airlines (Singapore, Thai, Korean, Japan) have long competed on in-flight service using young, attentive cabin crew. The Arabs are emulating this: Emirates, Qatar and Etihad hire Asian girls. And finally, India’s airlines have gotten the idea as well. Kingfisher and Jet seem to have found large numbers of attractive and smart young women as cabin crew. Jet has already created a reputation for good service on its international routes. I do hope they keep it up.
The decline in the standards of air travel in the US and the corresponding rise in India is a metaphor for the shifting fortunes of the two nations, and their trajectories. Civil engineering, once America’s pride and joy, is now under-funded. The great highways are neglected (a bridge in Minnesota collapsed recently), and the airports are tired and obsolete.
India’s advantage, once again in parallel with telecommunications, is that it is not saddled with old infrastructure. If India builds better airports (and, remembering Bangalore Airport, proper roads to reach them), the increasing numbers of air travelers will help the airlines grow. That story is true in many other fields: Banking and financial services, retail, real estate. India’s “demographic dividend” of an increasing number of young, working, upwardly-mobile people will drive internal demand for some years to come. The Asian Century is well on its way; and this is only as it should be, because up until 200 years ago, Asia dominated the world, as it will in future.