The other day a writer friend was in a tizzy. He had been invited to judge a prestigious literary award in London. But the organizers had booked his flight on Air India.
"But it's business class," I told him.
"But it's still Air India," he replied despairingly.
Such is the reputation of the Maharaja of airlines these days – a sort of dowager, the antithesis of cool, especially the retro-cool of newer kids on the block like Indigo.
Who would have thought that old Air India, the butt of so many jokes, could suddenly find its spine?
For that if nothing else, Air India should be grateful to Shiv Sena MP Ravindra Gaikwad. Now Gaikwad is famous all over India (and the internet) for assaulting an Air India employee because he was upset he could not travel business class on a flight that had no business class. He refused to alight from the plane after it had landed. He bragged that he assaulted the staffer with his slippers "25 times".
The staffer said "Ravindra Gaikward hit me, used foul language and not only broke my specs but humiliated me in front of the whole crew." The unrepentant Gaikwad, despite being caught on camera, said, "I am a Shiv Sena MP and will not tolerate any insult. Let the employee complain. I will complain to the Speaker and other authorities."
The employee Sukumar was unfazed. "I am not scared at all, either with Gaikwad or with the Shiv Sena. I have been serving public and have also faced many who get irritated on such issues. It's a common thing for me," he said. Air India also did not back down. It blacklisted Gaikwad. Even more surprisingly, other private airlines like Indigo followed suit. And Gaikwad ended up being forced to take a train despite saying defiantly that no one could blacklist him.
But to think it all came thanks to old Air India putting up a fight is the real surprise in the story.
While Osmanabad might observe a strike in support of its MP's thin-skinned honour, the rest of India is not displeased about a VIP getting his comeuppance. But to think it all came thanks to old Air India putting up a fight is the real surprise in the story.
Of course, it's a double-edged sword. No-fly lists are easy enough to get on to and next to impossible to get off as many discovered in post 9/11 America. Firstpost reports that one airlines was on pins and needles when it found an "R. Gaikwad" on its passenger list though it turned out to be an old man traveling with his family. But it means that many other Ravindra Gaikwads planning on boarding a flight anytime soon should brace themselves for a turbulent flight thanks to their tempestuous namesake.
And while we cheer Gaikwad getting a Maharaja style royal snub, we might all live to regret it if this incident spawns a black hole of a no-fly list that affects way more hapless people than the other Ravindra Gaikwads.
"He is a famous leader in Osmanabad. We should keep in mind how the officer talked to Gaikwad. I am not going to support his act. What he did was wrong, but this is not just one-sided."
Today Gaikwad and his bruised ego is finding some VIP support. If all the airlines can gang together so can politicians because birds of a feather flock together. Normally at each other's throats, they have found a moment of national unity because given how VIPs throw their weight around in India, they know they could easily end up on that same list.
Congress leader Husain Dalwai said "He is a famous leader in Osmanabad. We should keep in mind how the officer talked to Gaikwad. I am not going to support his act. What he did was wrong, but this is not just one-sided." (As far as we can tell only one side was slapping anyone with a slipper and boasting about it).
The question of "equally at fault" shows a great lack of understanding of the meaning of equal even if Sukumar had been rude to the honourable MP. Naresh Agarwal of the Samajwadi Party, a party also known for its meek and mild rule-abiding demeanour, said the airlines was showing "dadagiri".
Please pause here. Air India is often accused of abysmal customer service but who would have thought that it would one day be accused of showing dadagiri and that too to an elected Member of Parliament? The only muscle the poor carrier had shown in recent times was when some 200 of its pilots called in sick to work in a protest over training opportunities forcing many flights to be delayed or canceled.
Please pause here. Air India is often accused of abysmal customer service but who would have thought that it would one day be accused of showing dadagiri and that too to an elected Member of Parliament?
The only time it had really thrown its weight around lately was when it took some 57 staff off cabin duty in January and put them on ground duty because they were overweight. That was after 125 had suffered the same fate in September 2015.
This is an airlines that's mostly in the news when it's bad news about it. The phrase "close shave" and "Air India" seem to be joined at the hip in headlines over the years sometimes because of a bird or because of a burst tyre or because of engines being switched off mid-air. If it's not having a "close shave" it's always being beaten up for its chronic losses and being threatened with privatization after the botched merger between Indian Airlines and Air India. It is indeed everyone's whipping boy.
Perhaps the worm finally turned on that flight from Pune to Delhi. The slipper-happy Ravindra Gaikwad is not good news exactly but at least it shows that the beleaguered old Maharaja of carriers still has some spunk left in its fuel tank. But this is a dangerous time to show dissent to the political class as the rumblings in parliament prove. It would be deliciously ironic if our national carrier was suddenly branded the new anti-national.