India, Nov. 17 -- What is the best thing about no-frills airlines? If you answered, 'the fares', then you would be only half right. Yes, there was a time when the so-called low-cost carriers made flying cheap and accessible. But those days are long gone. Now, all airline tickets cost a bomb, no matter whether the carrier describes itself as high-cost or low-cost. In fact, it is actually cheaper to fly to the Far East than it is to anywhere in India because fares within the country are so high.
And why are they so high? Well, blame it on the foolishness of the government. Taxes are prohibitive. Aircraft fuel is priced at absurd rates. And the new private owners of our airports keep raising fees to such extravagant levels that airlines struggle to cope. In some cases at least - Bangalore or Delhi, for instance - the newly-enriched monopolists who own our airports (they are all sitting on thousands of crores of undervalued land assets) are providing travellers with decent facilities. But anybody travelling out of Bombay International airport must wonder if he is in Sub-Saharan Africa.
But I digress. My little rant about fares is only to tell you why it makes less and less sense to fly to a holiday destination in India any longer. Or even to a metropolitan city. (You want a comparison? Okay, Delhi-Bangkok-Delhi in Club Class usually costs less than Delhi-Bangalore one way! Never mind that Bangkok is much further away than Bangalore. And even the Economy fares have reached the stage where it is cheaper to fly abroad than to go anywhere in India.)
But there is one advantage to the low-cost carrier boom. And that is the food. Most airline food is rubbish. We all know that. Some of this has to do with the way flight kitchens are organised. For the most part they are nasty, industrial operations to which hotel chains usually exile their worst cooks. (There are some glowing exceptions: the Taj's Satish Arora and Arvind Saraswat are master chefs, for instance).
But the real reason airline food is usually so disgusting (especially in India) is because of the problems with a) customer preference and b) cost. Ever since Kingfisher went bust serving high-cost meals (high cost, maybe; but inedible anyway - you can tell that the management had no idea how to offer value for money), it has become an article of faith within the Indian airline business that the route to survival lies in cutting food costs. So portions have grown smaller. Flight kitchens are being paid less for each meal. And you and I, the hapless passengers, have to eat this reheated, low-cost garbage.
The second reason is our fault - or so the airlines tell us. Apparently, their research shows that when Indians fly (domestically at least), we want only one kind of meal: salad, one sabzi, one greasy paneer curry or some form of chicken curry, dahi (at least in the front of the aircraft), rice, a rolled-up reheated chapati wrapped in silver foil and a stodgy dessert. If the dessert is Indian then it must be made with milk. If it is foreign, then it should be made with gelatine.
Any airline that deviates from this formula pays the price. Meals are returned uneaten. Letters of complaint are written. Cabin crew are insulted. Nobody will eat mushrooms; paneer is the only 'vegetable' that many North Indians regard as perfect at 35,000 feet, and chicken is an all-time favourite. Try something more adventurous and passengers will protest.
So, while airline food is usually pretty poor everywhere in the world, the food on India's domestic airlines is about the worst. When you tell airline executives this, they shrug nonchalantly or point out that we are lucky to get any food in economy at all. Some domestic airlines in many other countries don't even give you a packet of nuts for free.
Why then am I so pleased by the low-cost carriers and their attitude to food? Well, because they have got around the two biggest stumbling blocks. First of all, they charge for food, so the usual excuses about how airlines have to keep food costs down do not apply to them. And secondly, they sell you food from a snack bar menu so you are not obligated to eat that usual crap airline meal of rice, paneer, salad, sweet dish, etc. You eat what you like.
I'm starting to feel that this may be the future of airline catering. A fortnight ago when I flew to Bombay on Indian Airlines (nominally Air-India but still run as a separate company), I discovered that there were no menus. Instead, nice, homely ladies took small trays of tinfoil-wrapped food around the cabin and asked, "You are wanting veg or non-veg?" Most people took one look at the food and decided they were wanting nothing. On the return sector, which was Air-India (an international flight), the service was vastly superior but, as far as I could tell, the food was the usual trash.
Compare this with the average low-cost carrier (say JetKonnect, which I often travel on). Guests get a printed menu that allows us to choose what we like, at rates that are fairly reasonable given the quality of the food. On morning flights you get a perfectly good scrambled egg and sausage roll (eggs, sausages, onions rolled in a roomali) for Rs. 190. At lunch you have a chicken tikka sandwich (also R190) on multi-grain bread and, at any given time you can get samosas (Rs 120 for two) or vada pav (Rs 100). If you want to splash out, then you can settle down to a Diet Coke (Rs 50) and Tyrell's Kettle Chips (Rs 150 a packet, but they import them from England). And this is just a selection from the menu; there's lots more you can order.
It has now got to the stage where even if I am flying Club Class on JetKonnect, I forego the three-course meal (included in the cost of my ticket) and order something from the Economy menu. I end up paying for it. But it is not that expensive and the food is easily worth it.
I've singled out Jet because it is my airline of choice but other low-cost carriers (apart from JetKonnect) offer food that is at least as good and as varied. Instead of sitting passively in your seat and eating whatever rubbish the crew brings around, you can actually order your own meal and eat as much or as little as you like.
The great thing about this trend is that at least the cabin crew treat you like an adult. Airlines have to stop treating their aeroplanes as institutional dining rooms and start regarding them as restaurants. Passengers must be given a choice. We are not children at some over-priced boarding school to be force-fed disgusting meal after disgusting meal.
I concede that space on aircraft galleys is limited so it is not possible to offer a wide variety of options. But even the limited selection on JetKonnect was better than the standard airline meal. Moreover, airlines should use the Net more. It is easy to just post a large menu on the Net and allow passengers to order their food a day before they fly.
If an airline has some idea of what each passenger wants to eat, then it can prepare and load the food in advance and not clutter up the galley. Some airlines already do this (on JetKonnect, they offer you a discount on some items if you order online) but the practice needs to become more widespread and standardised. Just as travel agents used to ask you whether you were vegetarian or non-vegetarian when you booked your ticket in the old days, we should all get used to the idea of choosing our meals at the time we choose our flights.
I, for one, would be more than glad to see the demise of the traditional, greasy airline meal with its tiny trays of reheated brown gunk that you have no choice but to eat.
And so I believe would other frequent travellers. So why can't airlines empower us more?
From HT Brunch, November 18
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Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.