Sunday, April 08, 2007

A Low Cost Affair

“Fly to Delhi @ Re 1. Fly to Mumbai @ Re 1. Fly to any destination within the country @ Re 1. Book early to get the early bird advantage.”

The Indian aviation industry has come a long way from the monopoly of Indian Airlines to an oligopoly of a few airlines like Jet Airways, Sahara, and Modi etc. to the current situation where there is a whole gamut of services available to the travelers at nominal prices. During the 1990s if you would have told anyone that it was possible to fly between the metros @ an expense of just a rupee, he would have written off the idea as a thought of an insane mind. But, in less than a decade it has become a reality. Traveling by air has come a long way from being the fancy of the rich to normality for the middle class.
And all this has been possible thanks to a new breed of airline service providers who are ready to provide you their services at dirt cheap prices. These airlines claim to be able to provide such dirt cheap prices by cost cuttings and by providing no frills services to their customers. But the big question still hangs heavy in the air is whether these airlines will be able to stay in business for long! As we all know, one of the pioneers of this low cost, no frills airlines is still struggling to break even after years of service and a whole fleet of aircrafts.
After hearing a lot about these airlines and these attractive air fares, a student like me was also eager to experience it. I had a very interesting conversation with the ticket booking clerk of one such service providers when I asked her to book me to two of its connecting flights for my home town (as there is no direct flight for my home town). I was very much surprised when the clerk advised me to not to book the tickets as the flight was getting delayed every time almost without fail and she assured me that I won’t ever be able to catch my connecting flight. On my insistence, she told me that she won’t guarantee my being able to catch the flight and also that I won’t be able to get my ticket refunded later. I mean, she was trying her best to deter me from buying the tickets. This first experience of mine was not exactly what I was thinking of. So, I dropped my idea and took the good old railway journey to home.
Very recently I again had an opportunity of having a rendezvous with another low cost airline. I had to go to Delhi from my home town due to some personal reasons. I along with my parents got our tickets booked for a hopping flight from Ranchi to Delhi via Patna. After clearance when I reached the security area, I was surprised to see a queue of travelers forming in front of the departures gate (reminds me of the queue we had to stand in, for entering into our school bus). On enquiring, I got an interesting explanation from one of my fellow travelers about the seating arrangements in the aircraft. I was enlightened about the first come first serve basis of seat allotment being observed over there. Not to mention, we also became a part of the queue. On boarding the flight, once again I was reminded of my school bus, where we used to keep our seats by putting handkerchiefs on the seats or one of our friends guarding the seats for rest of us. People fighting just like the good old school days to get the best seats available, with special preference for the window seats (yeah, it’s true, people literally pushing one another to get the prized window seats!!). Well, finally I was also able to ‘capture’ three seats for me and my parents (by capturing I don’t mean booth capturing, even though the process of the two having stark resemblance). I also had prior experiences of Indian Airlines, Sahara etc. I mean the early entrants who provided good service but also charged rates much higher than those quoted above, and let me tell you I couldn’t come to terms with the congested seats being provided in the aircraft. It seemed as if they had crammed in a few extra seats to compensate for the cost.
Finally, after it seemed as an eternity our flight took off. Another interesting observation that I could make out was that many travelers were carrying bottles of water with them (this only increased its resemblance to my school bus). Pretty soon I found out the reason when the air hostess came with their food trolleys, selling water bottles at prices much over the M.R.P. We reached Patna without any more surprises and finally I had started relaxing now that the initial surprises were over. But, I was to discover later that it was but only the tip of the glacier and the real fun was about to begin. I was busy taking in the beautiful scene outside the window (yeah, I was lucky enough to get a window seat, a great feat in itself!). Very soon the captain announced our reaching Delhi in another 15 minutes. Now, the drama began to unfold; in another 5 minutes we had another announcement from the flight captain explaining a delay in the touch down due to heavy traffic at the airport and so we were to keep hovering in the air for another 45 minutes (reminds me of my school bus getting delayed in the traffic!). This announcement only increased the chaos already residing in the aircraft. As it was getting late, we had to buy the food being served in the flight, which under any other circumstances we would have thought twice before buying crediting to the exorbitant prices being charged for them. Soon, there was a shortage of food and beverages, though mercifully we still had a supply of water to rely on. We had not even been able to digest this delay when we were greeted with another announcement explaining we didn’t have a chance to land before another hour of waiting, and as the plane was now low on fuel we were diverted to Lucknow for the time being. At the Lucknow airport we were told not to disembark from the aircraft due to security! reasons and the flight crew trying to amend for the extra expense switched off the A.C. which was turned on after the tempers of the travelers went over the boiling point (more due to rage than due to heat). The only compensating factor was that we were not alone but there were several other carriers stranded like us. Finally, after a total delay of three hours in a one and a half an hour flight we were able to reach Delhi. Thus you see this first experience of a low cost journey wasn’t something one likes to remember and we preferred the railways for our return journey.
But, this journey left a few questions in my mind which I have been pondering over ever since. I have been thinking if the infrastructure of our airline industry is developed enough to tackle this sudden population explosion of aircrafts. With new airlines starting every now and then and expansion in fleets of existing airlines, I am not sure about the future of the aviation industry of our country. The targets of these low cost airlines, as per them, are the 1st, 2nd & 3rd A.C. travelers of the railways. But, with such highly unreliable services I am not sure how much they will be able to succeed in their plans. The future we know not but with the way things are progressing, it ain’t lookin’ no bright!
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