In my humble opinion, instead of the ‘debate’, there should have been absolute outrage and the passenger called out for calling the ‘air hostess’ a servant. Instead what we have are expert opinions, lessons and the like on how airlines must conduct their business!
Here are some points of reality we as passengers must understand and appreciate. And some tips that we could do well to keep in mind when booking the next flight.
- An airline is like any other business when it comes to customer needs: they meet the ultimate need of a passenger – take you from point A to point B. Every other service they offer are purely their prerogative.
- Airlines adopt different models based on their ultimate objective – profits. Some offer more than the basic comforts – extra personal attention and lounges on the ground, benevolent baggage allowance, food-drink-personal tv screens-magazines on air, they are known as Full Service Carriers (FSCs). Others adopt more bare-bones model where everything minus the air breathed in the plane is chargeable. They are the notorious Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) who are giving FSCs a run for their money. Both these models exist, and there is a market for both.
- Airlines running on both models employ staff… quite a lot of them to ensure a plane takes off and lands safely with you and me. Some are behind phone lines and emails, others are at the airport – at check in counters, boarding gates, the tarmac etc., and still others are in large kitchens or are executives designing the entire airline experience. The most visible of them are on the plane – either navigating (pilots) or serving (cabin crew or air hostesses / pursuers).
- While everyone – from the guy who closes the fuel tank / cargo door properly, to the ensuring everyone booked is on the plane (ground staff) – is responsible for passenger safety, no one does a more difficult job than the pretty-looking, smiling people we call cabin crew. As a plane speeds past 800km/h and we are seated in the comforts of ergonomically designed seats (and not bus/train seats), they are the ones who walk up and down to ensure people have their seat belts on (otherwise during turbulence we’ll feel the need of helmets in the sky), ensure that hot coffee when poured even as the plane is in cruise mode doesn’t spill onto other passengers, and “in the event of an emergency landing / evacuation”, they ensure every single passenger deplanes safely. When a passenger develops a health problem they’re the first ones to help, when out of their scope they call for doctors, or eventually advise pilots to land a plane (unscheduled) to get the passenger to a hospital. They are the last ones to de-board a plane. They may be the first to board, but that is to ensure every seat is clean and the cabin is ready to receive guests for the flight.
- We think air hostesses have the best job. Of course they do. Even as they fly high and get to see places we don’t, their job is the result of many months of tough training (the interview itself is dramatic). More than that, every few months they have to undergo re-training (like pilots) to get themselves certified as ‘air worthy’. They have stringent rules to follow in how they appear, dress, how much they sleep and how they spend time during layovers. Recently there was outrage at Air India’s new uniform code. That’s how airlines want them to present themselves.
- Above all, they are human beings like us. They come from different backgrounds. Behind the smiles may be families in dire need, just like everyone of us. Behind their gracious smiles may be a broken home, the burden of a loan repayment or concern about a child longing for the presence of his/her mother or father. And as they are human, like us they also do not appreciate people seeing them with eyes coloured by entitlement, or lust! Some movies have depicted them in poor light leading to the average man to think that they are looking for something extra than the job.
Despite airlines choosing to call them red.hot.spicy (landing themselves in trouble) and some of them unwillingly choosing to be branded as such, ultimately the cabin crew are doing a professional job of ensuring safe passage of passengers and contributing to the brand or image of the airline they work for.
Tips to avoid heartburn onboard and at airports:
- Decipher between an FSC and an LCC.
- ‘Cheapest’ fares are not always the cheapest.At times they include just the seat. Checked In baggage, selection of seat on the plane, boarding before others, a bottle of water, food, beverages etc. have to be purchased (add-on) separately! An elderly couple flying between two cities in India happily chose the ‘cheapest’ fare but were bewildered that they both got middle seats, did not get ‘even water’, and the sandwich cost more than a steak burger at the city centre restaurant. On a three hour flight, it is always better to add-on some things (on an LCC), or just go for the FSC option.I once nearly made the mistake of booking Lufthansa’s cheapest fare which was very attractive, only to realise that it was a ‘carry on only’ fare (no check in bag allowance). For an inter continental route, I thought it was ridiculous, but there’s no point brooding over the point and fighting with the check in staff. Read the fine print.
- This is the age of ‘code share’ flights and ‘partner/alliance’ flights.Aircraft can be operated by other airlines than the one booked on. For instance an Emirates ticket may well result in an aircraft operated by Emirates upto Dubai, but an Air Canada flight all the way to Toronto. Or a BA ticket with an actual one-stop flight routing via Doha on Qatar Airways (as One World partners). Or even a Singapore Airlines flight but the India segment operated by Air India (as Star Alliance partners). No point getting to the airport and yelling at the check in staff.(This is a good way to make use, to fly airlines you may normally not… like the Qantas flight from LHR-DXB on an EK ticket [no longer available], or a Qantas flight to Melbourne from Singapore on a UL ticket)
‘Code share’ flights can result in combinations of FSC/LCC on connecting flights. Indigo Airlines’ recent expansion and numerous code share agreements have resulted in such FSC/LCC combinations. So it is possible these days to fly from LHR to Delhi using Turkish Airlines on the Istanbul sector, but Indigo Airlines to Delhi from Istanbul.
While making the booking, it will clearly mention if a segment is operated by XXX airline. Look for the tick or cross mark that indicates operational services.
- Weather-induced delays are normal.During peak fog in January/February, early morning flights can get disrupted. At the time of boarding the runway may have been operational. But sudden descend of fog can happen and result in delays after you’ve boarded. Ground staff do not decide when the plane takes off. They simply relay what has been informed to them. What airport staff can do best, is to learn how to creatively let us know, like from Shankar Mahadevan’s ad for Zepto (1:11) But we as passengers need to know how to be sporty too!Other issues can also cause delays, like a member of the crew falling sick. That’s why airlines often have stand by crews. At London while boarding the plane, a member of the crew fell sick all of a sudden. International civil aviation rules stipulate how such situations must be dealt with. No plane can take off without the required number of crew on board (as their primary responsibility is passenger safety). She quickly deplaned and request was made to get the ‘stand by’ crew to the plane even as boarding progressed. More than 30 minutes later we were informed that the crew member was on the way to the airport. 10 minutes after the crew supposedly arrived the Captain told us it was the wrong person who arrived. So another 50 minutes passed before the right person boarded the plane. The best you can do is to sleep, read a book, or if it’s an Emirates flight, watch something on ICE.
- F&B choice unavailable.Unless a special food is requested at the time of booking, it may happen that your preferred choice of food is unavailable. Airlines often offer the choice of two kinds of food (on India sectors this would be a non vegetarian and a vegetarian option). As the airline menu cards say, “occasionally these may be unavailable”. Yes, we are right in feeling disappointed (we can even express them politely), but we are not at liberty to start throwing a tantrum and calling the crew names. No. No. They are not magicians to pull your favourite pasta or paneer tikka from anyone’s hat. They can only give you what is available on board, in air.Airlines normally serve food first to those with special requests or for children. Depending on the number of people who have booked special meals (which may be more on India sectors), other [normal] passenger service may take a little extra time. The best thing to do is to continue watching “ICE”.
On a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to India, a bunch of men, already high on drinks started to demand more liquor on the flight. When the young Indian girl who was the air hostess designated to serve the row (on her very first flight) indicated she may not be able to serve more, she was yelled at, jeered and lewd comments passed. She turned red, was reduced to tears and a male crew member had to dissolve the situation.
On a BA flight to London, the senior I was newly reporting to at the office, rather curtly and rudely asked for another round of whiskey in addition to the two rounds he already had. The middle aged member of cabin crew politely said ‘no’, “since you’ve already had a couple”. A loud, violent retort followed: “You’re not my mother to tell me how much to drink”!! For the remainder of the flight I pretended I never knew the man. Predictably, very soon he was out of the office too!
Often we’ve heard how foreign airlines treat Indian sectors. If the above two instances are indicators, then do we need anymore reasons?
- Other passengers can cause inconvenience. Crew members try to help.Every passenger is not as experienced, suave or travel-friendly. If requested properly, the crew will help find a good alternative on the plane.On an flight bound for India, at my designated seat there were two 80-85+ men, too tall for an economy class seat, not a word of English on their tongue, and utterly confused when I told one of them that the seat was mine. The middle aged male crew member suddenly appeared from behind the galley and asked: “is that your seat”? “Never mind, they’re too old to relocate and they are first time travellers and nervous… let me find you a seat… there are one or two empty seats”. Standing at the rear galley with my cabin baggage for almost 25 minutes, obviously growing nervous myself, I began to entertain rather wicked thoughts of a bump up to ‘Club World’. Just a minute to push back, he came to me for the nth time, this time taking me over to a front row middle seat. I thanked him, but thanklessly asked if the aisle seat two rows behind was empty. Seeing me ask, another passenger from the nearby middle seat lunged in lightning speed and the crew member just looked at me and shrugged. Throughout the 9-hr flight, he treated me well, as he did everyone else. Even when its time for ‘push back’ and your seat isn’t ready, be polite and confident – cabin crew members know your needs.
- Smiling is not an invitation to cross the line.Air Hostesses and male cabin crew are trained to smile. While boarding, serving food or saying bye-bye. That’s the nature of the business – it’s a customer facing role. However, these are not an invitation for crossing the line and ‘approaching’ them for any favours. There may be the odd story of onboard friendships ending in marriage, but those are far and few in between. On an Oman Air flight, I was asked if I am a Keralite. In reply I asked “which part of Kerala are you from (her mallu accent gave way)?” (she was from Kannur). Only later did I realise it was an attempt to stave off another fellow-passenger’s attempt to engage her in a very different conversation.
Like Vir Sanghvi wrote this morning, “there is one factor we never include in these debates: The Indian passenger. While the vast majority of us are well-behaved and decent, there is a significant and nasty minority that makes it difficult for any Indian carrier to operate because there is no respect for the people who work for the airline and no acknowledgement for the dignity of labour”.
Let me end this with an incident I witnessed at Dubai International’s arrival immigration counter. The lean, snobbish looking young bloke on the phone was abusing his travel agent for booking him on this particular flight because the immigration queues are long (yes, you read it right). He perhaps wanted to arrive at a quieter time. Maybe. Continuing his abuse on the phone he quickly came out of the line he was standing in and rushed to the smallest line 4 counters to his left. Just that he missed to see the immigration officer closing that line and going back to his seat. In typical manner he sneaked into that line. When his turn came at the counter, the officer got up and ‘walked’. The officer from the next counter simply told him to get to another queue (every other queue was very long). A police official spotting the ‘sneaker’ directed him to the longest queue. Not a word was asked or said. The passenger in front of me looked back and said: “if this was Mumbai or Bangalore he would have brought the roof down”.
It is my sincere wish that Indigo Airlines will stand with their staff. Investigate the passenger and his behaviour and as per Indian rules take necessary action. As for Indians, let us learn to be respectful. Yes there are times when service personnel on a plane, at a restaurant or even at shops can get rude. Sometimes unreasonably. Ultimately, we are all human, aren’t we!