It was back in the 70s when I took my first flight abroad. No prizes in guessing that the carrier was Air India. While there were a limited number of airlines operating out of India back then, there was a more forceful reason for choosing the national carrier. It was one of the best in the world. The flights were punctual, the service was excellent, the cabin staff were well-trained and responsive, and the aircraft were well-maintained and spotless. The Maharaja was not just a branding exercise, it came pretty close to royal treatment. That was some years after it was nationalised, but JRD Tata was still at the helm and there was a visible sense of patriotism and pride in the air, literally, which made it such a superior airline. It was Indiaís most visible symbol in the international arena back then, and the jewel in the crown.
Over the years, it became such a royal pain, thanks to politicians, the bureaucracy and its own internal failings as a corporate entity competing in a global market, that I stopped flying Air India. On the occasions that I did, out of necessity, I was disgusted at the deterioration in every aspect of its operation. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the airport. I flew Air India One on a few occasions as a media representative. Air India One is the call sign given to the aircraft that flies the prime minister or the president on official trips abroad. Admittedly, flying the prime minister imposes a new set of rules and discipline on the airline, but the transformation is quite remarkable and VIP flight or not, there is a subtle but unmissable message in the way the aircraft operates and the standards of service. The same air hostesses who are so indifferent on a commercial flight, the flight crew who think nothing of showing up a couple of hours late, or not showing up at all, are at their professional best. And Air India at its professional best is a hard act to follow.
It begs the question: Is privatising the airline the answer? On past record, it certainly seems the only way to drag the airline, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Hereís the catch: National carriers have a worth and purpose that goes beyond mere financials. Many aviation experts have argued that emerging economies need