Thursday, August 24, 2006

Behave Yourself, You Are On An Aircraft

8 comments
A few years ago, I was on a KLM flight from Delhi to Amsterdam's Schipol airport, my destination as well. The plane took off at 6 or 7 am in the morning. It had been a tiring night, leaving the hotel at 3 am or some such hour and then dragging oneself to the Indira Gandhi International.

Not so for many of my co-passengers and country men as I discovered. Barely had we lifted off, some of them began walking up and down and loudly greeting their friends sitting elsewhere, like the take-off had been something to celebrate. Next, the purser was summoned and alchohol was requested for. The purser declined saying service would start a little later.

They waited for a little longer and then dispersed. I found out where a little later when I took a walk to the lavatory in the rear. A group of 10 or so men had collected and were imbibing fine scotch, or so it looked like. "Some whiskey for you ?" one of them asked me in a tone that was more a suggestion than a offer. I declined and requested to be allowed to pass. The `whishkey' was offered once more, till another, presumably more considerate, member of the group raised a `cheers' to me and moved his friend out of the way.

Their Idea Of Fun

For the next couple of hours, the pursers and air hostesses were constantly badgered for alchohol and accompaniments. When the purser put his foot down, they would cosy up to him, put an arm around his shoulder and wink.."Come on yaar, just one drink for us." The audio levels of the conversation at the rear steadily rose. By the end, it could have well been a Sunday morning bazaar.

The young men were having fun, the rest of the aircraft was not. There was a strained silence all across. Most passengers, particularly some younger women, looked extremely stressed. Like me, everyone was hoping these guys would not do something stupid. And not knowing what would happen if they did.

This was a few years before 9/11. No one had used aircraft as instruments of destruction so the fear was limited. People on my flight were worried about a law and order problem. They were not worried about any terrorist problem. At least I don't think so. Fortunately, nothing happened and the exuberant gathering soon dispersed, fully satiated and settled down to sleep.

Decorum On An Aircraft

I am pretty sure this sort of behaviour would have caused equal consternation today. With a difference. Some of the actions and defiance could be interpreted as terrorist behavious. Or someone with a design to do serious damage, either to the aircraft, the people or a third target.

The problem is many people fly for the first time. Understanding decorum and behaviour on aircraft (or for that matter buses and trains) is not something that comes naturally. No one teaches it to you. Perhaps its time that we did. Notices at international airports (I noticed them in the US I think) already warn you against making any statement about a bomb in your baggage..jocularly.

Some not so frequent fliers might think its fun to run around the aircraft, brandishing cell phones and the like. Some of us who grow up don't do so respecting authority. After all, this is something you do as a kid, not as an adult. We also assume authority everywhere to react the same way our local `pandu' does - a fiver and he's on his way. It struck me that the young men who boarded the KLM at Delhi were treating the purser like they would a local constable or some minor government official.

No More Mid-Air Antics

Well, don't expect airline staff or marshals on board to think similarly. And not just on international but aircraft flying domestic skies as well. Not any more. The world has changed, mid-air antics will not be tolerated. And you better understand that. Airlines need to to their bit to tell passengers in no uncertain terms that funny behaviour will not be tolerated. For their own good. Its not tough to do it.
The guys on my KLM flight to Amsterdam got away luckily. Personally, I would have liked to see them taught a lesson. Maybe a small one, but one nevertheless.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Air India & The Fine Art of Airline Upgrades

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Three days ago a Bollywood actor and her friend had a flaming row with Air India counter staff after the latter allegedly denied the friend an upgrade. Getting upgrades on airlines is an art, though with Air India, it could be argued that its a science as well. I've been lucky on a couple of ocassions on international carriers, where profile and the right VIP associations are not necessary preconditions for upgrades.

What I mean is its been plain luck. Mostly, its been a surprise at the boarding gate, where my stub has been taken, a new seat number written on and handed back. But I've always wondered whether its an easy thing to ask for, leave alone fight for. Am not saying the young ladies in question demanded they be upgraded or else..aviation minister Praful Patel would be summoned to set things right, as some newspapers reported.

Air India's own reasoning for offering the upgrade was apparently that the actor had commercial importance and hence was upgraded. For a change, I can't argue with that one. Though Air India could fly all the Bollywood actors it wants and it couldn't save themselves from plunging into losses this year. Or for that matter the next, if it remains the way it is.

The Art Of Getting Upgrades

The fact is that many passengers have mastered the art of getting upgrades. Many plan it long before the actual flight takes place. To that extent the Bollywood actor in question hasn't figured life out completely. Most passengers, having secured an upgrade for free or at an remarkably lower cost, boast about the feat endlessly. I recall doing it a few times myself. After all, why woudn't you talk about the equivalent of hitting a mid-air jackpot ?

A young lady recently gave me a long lecture on how airline miles should be accumulated for free tickets and upgrades. She said it was utter foolishness not to take advantage of such facilities. I've been a little more careful since then. But as it happens, after that lecture, I have not flown that much.

Ive seen people asking for upgrades at counters. And mostly nicely. Not saying I will call so and so and get you fixed if you don't give it to me. These are the most decent chaps. They want the luxury of business class travel, can't afford it but don't mind asking. The not so decent ones are those who've obviously fixed it before arriving at the airport. And I don't mean by sending a requisition form to the airline concerned.

Till Death Do Us Apart

Being a Government-owned entity in India is not an easy thing. Which is why Air India typically faces the worst of it. Not to say that the airline itself is not at fault. I've stood in business class lines (paid for) where most of the people before and after me were employees or relatives of employees travelling on free tickets. And wanting further upgrades and adjustments.

Once I noticed an oldish couple showing American passports and collecting boarding cards. This followed a long, painful and totally pointless discussion with the counter staff where they bargained like they were buying fish at the Bandra (in Mumbai) fish market. They were either employees or relatives. But it amazed me that you could actually be a citizen of another country and still claim benefits from a state-owned airline !

I would love to write more on Air India, an airline I vowed not to fly even if I die - translated, even my coffin (were I to cop it on international soil) would not be brought back on this airline. But that's for another day.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

India-China, Do We Suffer From The Burden Of The Past ?

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Try this for irony. Prime minister Manmohan Singh says Mumbai must emulate Shanghai. At the same time, his defence ministry prepares to bomb the city ! It is perhaps in the nature of defence reporting that coverage of the not so successful Agni III missile launch included casual references to its capability of hitting "high value targets" in China, notably Beijing and Shanghai.

The casual references were unfortunately followed (independently or otherwise) by not so casual actions. Chinese companies - note that it is not all foreign companies – were denied entry into the ports sector. Investment proposals from Chinese companies such as ZTE Telecom (trading arm), Huawei (manufacturing) have been rejected, on `security' considerations, which are not altogether very clear.

Putting aside the sectoral sensitivities, broadly, the polity is divided in two camps. Hawks who see China as a permanent threat and others who see it as an economic ally or better, an example to emulate. Its a somewhat unusual extreme. Yet the positions are clear. What is not so clear to me, a younger Indian, is why China is perceived as a specific threat ? And what defines this threat today ?

Legitimate Concerns

Yes, there have been legitimate concerns. For instance, the nuclear arming of Pakistan in the 1980s and the `encouraging' of separatist movements in the north east in the 60s and 70s. Though these events are more than two decades behind.

So, is China a threat because of a burden of memory on those who were at the receiving end of a distant event (the 1962 border war) in history. Then all the more reason to debate or address some of the issues raised above. Because in not doing so, we are perpetrating a slow brainwash of this generation as well.

How ? By possibly extrapolating Mao Zedong's aggressive world view on to his clearly pragmatic successors three decades later. It was Mao who said "the time had come to teach that representative (Nehru) of the reactionary national bourgeoisie a lesson." And dispatched some 30,000 troops to do the job. *

The Real Mao ?

There is more to Mao. While India has stewed for decades over the 1962 debacle, little is known about what transpired on the Chinese side, about the war itself and the people behind it. And insights into the real Mao, devoid of propaganda, have only begun emerging in recent years. Like how for Mao, the India war was but one move in the geopolitical chessboard - China expert Mira Sinha Bhattacharjea referrs to Mao's India war as based not on territorial concerns but strategic considerations.

Interestingly, Nehru's own role in that period has been debated. From his botching the Sino-India border issue to being seen as competing with Mao (who thus struck back) for the position of Asian leader. Leading to the 1962 war. But Nehru comes out largely fine. Not so with Mao. Critics today refer to him as a tyrant and dictator worse than Hitler, charging him with the death of tens of millions of Chinese.

Moreover, some of his policies have been publicly repudiated by successive Chinese governments. As far back as 1981, a Communist Party' Central Committee resolution said Mao’s Cultural Revolution was carried out "under the mistaken leadership of Mao Zedong". Though Mao has not been completely discredited, surely not to the extent many China watchers would like him to be.

Why The Distrust ?

There is of course the eternal question of who drew first blood ? From what I read, including Ministry of Defence history accounts of 1962, India's own actions are under a question mark. John Garver, a China specialist, has written that Chinese reacted because it feared a concerted Indian attempt to undermine its position in Tibet. Not to mention Mao's machinations.

Which brings us back to the subject at hand. Why would we express such evident distrust with a country we do $11 billion of trade ? The Chinese for sure don't view Indian investment with any suspicion. If I were to go with one point of view, 1962 happened precisely because we miscalculated or didn't fully understand Chinese intentions. By the looks of it, we are doing it again, albeit with no military implications. Or so I hope.

While much political progress has been made in recent years (AB Vajpayee's visit, Nathu La pass opening), we still hold on to some inexplicable hardline. As has been argued in the past (Jairam Ramesh: Making Sense of Chindia), Indian investments into China are far smoother than the other way around. I can and have got a Chinese visa in Hong Kong in hours. Chinese businessmen on the other hand complain of onerous procedures to visit India.

Business As Usual

Indeed, having invested there, firms like Mahindra & Mahindra are now planning expansions in capacity. Software majors TCS, Infosys and Satyam will soon employ in China as many engineers as they did in India just a few years ago. Of course the Chinese have more restrictions on foreign investments than India does. But they apply uniformly, not selectively.

And finally, most Indians living in China would admit to you that this is amongst the few, relatively developed nations where they are treated so well. We also seem to overlook that most of the Chinese leadership is technically trained. This makes them focus more on practical delivery. Remember Deng Xiaoping's statement about it not mattering what colour the cat was. As long as it caught mice.

* Philip Short: Mao, A Life.

This article appeared in the Business Standard this week and has already attracted some criticism !
 

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