Sunday, December 2, 2007

Low-cost Air Travel in India. Will the party last?

It was 32 years ago that I first saw the inside of an Aircraft, as a passenger. Those were the times when very few travelled by air and 95% of them on expense account. Snacks served were bad without exceptions and the crew used to be impolite. After all, the crew was in the employment of a major Public Sector organization and so considered the impolite behaviour as their privilege.

Even after allowing for the fact that 32 years mean a very long period, air-travel in India has changed substantially. The private Airline companies have brought about a remarkable change. The fares have dipped; even the premium Airlines keep a few tickets for selling at low fares. The staff is polite enough. Complaints are addressed with acceptable efficiency. Every time I board a low-cost Airline flight , I see faces, among the passengers, whose body language shows very clearly that they are first-time air travellers; their enthusiasm is very visible. Their children run from one end to another. The elders open their lunch boxes soon after the take-off since there is literally no 'free-lunch' in low-cost flights. Many of them prefer to address the air-hostesses as 'Sister' in the best tradition of small town India. They are mostly converts from train passengers. There are more families than individual travellers among them. It makes one really feel good to notice unassailable proof of more and more people sharing in the fruits of the economic growth.

There is one factor which can spoil the party. It is the relentless climbe of the crude oil prices in the international market. Being heavily dependent on imported oil, India will bear the brunt. And one reads in the newspapers every few weeks about a fresh increase in the price of aviation fuel. The airlines will pass on the cost to the passengers and in course of time, the value-for-money kind of passengers who form the bulk of low-cost air traffic will say ' Enough is enough' and switch back to the good old Indian Railways. By then, the now-first-time-flight- passengers will have collected enough boarding passes and so will have satisfied their earlier curiosity about air travel. They will carry with them enough stories about air travel, to tell their co-passengers in the train for time-pass.

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