Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The grounding of India's middle class

The party's over for India's low-cost budget airlines

Will air travel in India ever become cheap again? Will typical Indian middle class families with noisy kids and neatly packed tiffin boxes of food be able to afford a plane ticket again? Just a few years back this was possible.

The thrifty train-traveling population of India that likes to pack homemade Poorie (oily form of bread) and Pickle to save money at restaurants could afford to fly to exotic destinations such as Goa at rail fare budgets.

The offerings were from low cost, no-frills airlines like Indigo, Go Air, Spice Jet and the erstwhile Air Deccan. If one got lucky online, the air fare could even be cheaper than the to and fro airport taxi expense.

Swarms of itinerant Indians clicked their way to the first airplane journeys of their lifetimes, a journey to be proudly displayed in personal albums or later Facebook alongside the obligatory shots in front of the magnificent Taj Mahal or the Qutub Minar.

Planes turned into noisy picnic spots. This writer remembers couple of instances of kindly aunties happily distributing their home cooked food fare to any passenger that cared to partake in scenes that were strangely reminiscent of what you might see on an Indian train journey.

Even the crew joined the party. Only the state-owned Indian Airlines, with its surly flight attendants, continued to lose customers.

To take on competition the carrier changed its name to Air India for whatever reason, while heavily losing money even as the unionized staff aggressively fought with the government for better salary and perks. The flying experience, however, was overhauled, courtesy of the private players.

For those who could afford it, there was Kingfisher Airlines, named after the popular beer brand, usually patronized by the snooty suited corporate class, traveling on company expense with access to free booze at business class lounges and the added attention of very pretty and leggy air hostesses for the feel good factor.

Kingfisher's extravagance included gifts to each passenger and a personal message on individual screens, another novelty for a domestic carrier, delivered in style by diamond earring-studded Vijay Mallya exhorting "guests" to live life King Size.

The gorgeous Yana Gupta in a micro mini explained the life jacket process. All passengers listened and watched attentively, for a change.

Good times they were, until, that is, it all came crashing down due to high fuel costs, taxes, government mismanagement of air routes and Kingfisher selling a dream beyond its means. The party was well and truly over.

The high flying company executives have since occupied low cost airlines seats, now priced far above the erstwhile full fare rates. The corporate tickets continue to be packaged with free meals on board to keep the envy factor alive. Those paying from their own pockets obviously do not shell out Rs200 (US$3.70) for an extra-spicy, extra-oily sandwich, just because one is midair for a couple of hours. Sadly, the friendly flying aunties dishing out delicious Poories for all to share have disappeared.

The budget traveler, already struggling with rising inflation, has been pushed out. Going to Goa is a middle class dream once again, the sublime beaches accessible only on post cards. One can actually visit Southeast Asia at similar fares, with the added label of having visited a foreign country.

The Poorie and Pickle traveling section, described infamously by the eloquent Shashi Tharoor as the cattle class, are back to rail and bus holidays, given limitations of absolute travel budgets.

This brings us back the original question? Will the rail travelers again graduate to flying? Changes are happening in India's struggling aviation sector following amendments to foreign investment rules. A new low cost domestic carrier backed by AirAsia, the indefatigable Ratan Tata and Tata Group is in the offing. Foreign players such as Emirates and Etihad are looking at investment options in Spice Jet, Jet Airways and the grounded Kingfisher, and could infuse much-needed capital. A price war is currently under way, though cheap tickets are still very difficult to come by. Will India's aviation sector sustain?

Will the cattle class be able to occupy planes again? Will the pretty model hostesses of Kingfisher airlines be back with their life jacket performances? One can only hope for the best.

(This first appeared on the Mocking Indian blog. Reprinted with permission from Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a copy-sharing agreement.)

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