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Democracy For The People


Plentiful availability and affordable fares, most of the time at least have made air travel a far more equitable place
Once upon a time, when I was a young boy, which was a long, long time ago as the white hairs on my chin will testify, I used to fly exactly twice a year. This used to be during the summer holidays when my lovely parents used to dispose of me to their parents. It was not an easy process, let me explain why, back in the 1990s, Indian Airlines had a scheme where school kids going back to their ‘hometown’ or something like that got a pretty nice discount. This was a time when there was one fare, no fare buckets and all sorts of sub-heads such as ‘CUTE’ and all that, so my father got a nice discount, which helped considering he had to send two boys off to Kolkata. Heck, I may not remember much from my childhood, but for some strange reason I do remember many of those flights on Indian Airlines’ old Airbus A300 B2 aircraft - flight numbers IC 401/402 and IC 263/264 used to operate the two daily rotations between Delhi and Kolkata back then.
The funny part was that you had to buy your tickets in March, even though school didn’t close till May. That is because if you didn’t book early, you wouldn’t get a seat, the ‘waitlist’ was a reality of life in 1980s and early to mid 1990s India. I do remember my father having to pull strings sometimes to put me on the plane, I guess they were that desperate to get rid of me. Not that it helped my parents marriage, but truth be told this was more because you could be sent as an unaccompanied minor on the flight and my parents didn’t need to take a week off to accompany me on the Rajdhani (there were only two Rajdhani Expresses then; to Howrah and Bombay Central and delays were epic, but that is another tale). Those flights were fun, the food felt fresher, the planes were noisier and I could stare out of the window for hours, and I’ve not given up that habit. My younger brother made his most prescient comment (ever, in my opinion) when he asked where the gods were in the clouds. If you watched Ramayana and Mahabharata on Doordarshan back then, you’ll get this.
Fast forward thirty years and while I still have chubby cheeks, they have a significant amount of hair growth on them. And instead of two flights a year, I’m likely to close 2019 with over eighty flights (still less than the 150 I somehow managed I’m 2018), domestic and international. And given what I do, that is reviewing and writing about cars, I realise that I’m an outlier and I cant even begin to imagine my carbon footprint. But flying has changed, for better or for worse is not an opinion I’m going to drawn into, but it has changed. Let me look at one thing, fares between Delhi and Kolkata, which in real terms have declined by over 50 per cent. During price controls back in the early 2000s I’d to travel to Kolkata a few times to meet my grandparents (bless their souls) and a return ticket cost around `15,000, less than what I’d pay for a business class fare in absolute terms on a normal day. Of course, during abnormal times, Durga Puja to Kolkata or Diwali to Delhi, fares can skyrocket but they aren’t just two planes flying, today there are over twenty flights between the two cities, more people fly between the two cities than travel on the Howrah Rajdhani Express. I don’t know about you, but that is a major change.
Sure this increase of flying has had many not so things happen, crowds at airports have shot up. Long security and immigration queues are a fact of life nowadays, but the airports themselves have become a lot better. I have flown out of Delhi and Mumbai’s old international terminal and let me assure you, the term hellhole is being polite. Yes, airports are shopping malls where planes pull up, but believe me, things could be worse. And as I write this sitting on a packed IndiGo flight between Mumbai and Delhi, I also realise how air travel has touched every level of society. Your Uber driver who dropped you to the airport could be sitting next to you on your next flight to Goa. Heck, talking of the coastal state, can you even imagine the stage of Goa’s tourism economy without IndiGo? I’m trying to remember my first trip to that state back in 2000, things were so different and frankly privileged and slightly elitist back then.
Bemoaning the loss of that privilege is a sign of a feudal society and I for one do not want the ‘good old days’ back. Because keep in mind no matter what the problems with the Boeing 737 Max and the Airbus A320 Neo, planes aren’t going down every second week due to incompetence, technical issues or terrorism. Sure, you can crib about IndiGo’s overpriced cashewnuts, but when you watch your downloaded Netflix show on your smartphone or on a seatback screen on your international flight, the only thing you should bemoan is the irrelevance of the ‘airport thriller’ nowadays. You may not like the results that democracy throws up, but it is what it is.