Thursday, July 10, 2008

Plane and Simple

Plane Plane Plane, Pilot Plane,
Down the steps came Suchitra Sen,

O Mrs Sen,
What is in your bag?

“Mutton Curry for Uttam,
Don’t be such a nag!”

Once upon a time, flying as a mode of travel was for the elite within the financial elite. It was for the glamorous people. As the little poem from our childhood (freely translated) suggests, only stars like Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar, in their very sixties and seventies sunglasses, were expected to walk down the portable stairs leading to Fokker Friendships or Super Constellations. Of course, even shady people, also in sixties and seventies shades, were expected to fly! Air travel was tremendously expensive, there were fewer planes, and I suppose people had more time. The difference between plane fares and train fares were huge. If a ticket from our city to Delhi cost Rs. 500/- in the deluxe air-conditioned coaches, the corresponding plane fare would be around Rs. 5000/- (this bit of info is pure guesswork, though I am sure the actual figures are quite similar).

Then came the flying boom. There were cheaper airlines offering cheap tickets. The idea was good, they cut cost in the hospitality section. Who bothers about food on a two hour flight! Friendly smiles from Air Hostesses were enough. This of course you could rarely get from the official Indian airline – which I still believe is a kind of rehab home for aged air hostesses. Sorry, I am being massively politically incorrect, but being politically correct (since no politician ever bothers to be so) can be such a bore sometimes. I firmly believe in one definition of friendship – “Friends are people with whom you need not be politically (in any form of politics) correct.” As you can guess this very wise definition is all Sidhubaba’s.

The cheaper airlines also cut costs as far as ticketing was concerned. No counters, no salespeople. All you need is internet and a printer and a credit card. Print your own tickets and you are ready to fly. But this boom came a little late. Or, rather, the oil prices soared a little too fast. Now again we are back to the first square. Flying is again expensive. Even if the base fare is Rs. 1/-, you have to pay somewhere around Rs. 2800/- with the taxes and surcharges (surcharge = surreal charge?) and so on.

Good thing too. Our skies were getting too crowded. In the last couple of months there were at least three reports of near misses in the sky. Can you imagine a midair collision! Wonderful isn’t it. How big a sky do we need? Speaks volumes about our efficiency and equipments. I wonder if Air Traffic Control also falls under the almost militant all powerful CITU! Also the airports were becoming too small. No proper facilities! People were actually standing or sitting on the floor! Flights were being delayed. I remember waiting for 3½ hours because the flight did not have runway clearance. The actual time of travel was 1 hour. The total time taken from reaching the source airport and leaving the destination airport was something around seven hours. This included the baggage delays and shouting at taxi drivers.

I love to fly. But flying in a system of air traffic jams is becoming scary. Not that I will not jump at the next opportunity of a cheap ticket, but trains do have their charm. Why not use this wonderful facility where you can spend days sleeping eating in a moving and rocking train as if it was your own household. There are problems, hazards, risks. But what exists without them? In UK they were thoroughly impressed when they learnt we have overnight express trains, and were thoroughly appalled when I told them that some journeys take more than 48 hours. You see, if you start from any end of UK and travel in an express train for 48 hours, you will be in the middle of the sea!


Sucharita Sarkar said...

"I love to fly" - well, so do I. But since the govt. and the airlines seem to have conspired to snatch away the only-recently-given cake from our middle-class hands, flying seems destined to become, once more, a pie-in-the-sky.

BTW, the translation was hilarious.

ugich konitari said...

Actually I have been dying to say all the stuff you write about :-)....

Here in Mumbai, a comment like 'Santa Cruz airport is becoming like VT second class waiting room' is heard more and more often. In the big rush to become Shanghai, everybody is just left saying hai hai.......

Having said that , flying still appears a glamorous thing to me :-)

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