Two incidents, out of several in the same vein, both involving the airline industry's market leader IndiGo last week, held national attention.
In one, a passenger who had been cooped up in the aircraft on account of an inordinate delay due to fog-hit Delhi lost his composure and attacked the captain who stood out of the cockpit to announce the imminent departure. In the second, a number of passengers returning from Goa to Delhi settled down on the tarmac to have dinner when their flight was diverted to Mumbai after long delays.
Both represent an infraction of the rules. The first, an act of uncivilised behaviour and loss of control by a flier for which he was arrested and later released on bail and the second a breach of security rules since the tarmac cannot substitute for a dining hall at any cost. Presumably, both situations went out of hand of the airline's on the ground staff, who could do nothing to prevent either episode.
As delays and disruptions became the norm through December and last week, anger of stranded and suffering fliers across social media platforms was directed at airlines — the maximum for IndiGo, being the giant — the airport and the director general of civil aviation (DGCA) in different measure. The latter being the country's favorite punching bag for all troubles the sector faces right from exorbitant fares to flight disruptions or instances of unruly behavior. Essentially, if a passenger or airline staffer sneezes out of turn, everyone looks to DGCA for a solution!
From IndiGo's point of view, the above two incidents are more an aberration — albeit an annual one, that follows the arrival of winter and fog-hit operations. IndiGo as the largest player faces more of the flak: when the scale is big, everything is magnified. On a good day, the over 60% market share and 90% load factor works to its advantage and on a bad day, the same statistic comes back to bite. Social media and its all pervasive influence leads to intense and 24X7 public scrutiny, raising blood pressure all round and in turn making everyone's job harder. While appearing larger than life in the moment, both these incidents will be quickly forgotten as public memory, as we have seen time and again, is very short.
Looking at some of the larger issues at play, while any kind of physical attack by fliers cannot be condoned, it was not without provocation. Anyone following the flight disruptions across airlines would be familiar with the predicament passengers were facing. To apportion the blame for the mayhem that unfolded is virtually impossible since all stakeholders play a part.
To begin with, there is little excuse for the runway at Delhi airport that is equipped for low visibility operations to be non-functional at the time when visibility is known and expected to be at its lowest: December and January. In a communication with the authorities, the operator lists five reasons on the constraints it has faced in rehabilitation and completion of the work on the runway, which it argues could only begin post the G-20 and after the fourth runway was ready for arrivals. Possibly a valid reason, but one few are willing to accept.
Airlines too need to accept a portion of the blame for having senior captains and commanders who are not trained to operate in low visibility conditions. Why would the senior commanders not be Cat-III compliant? How much does it cost and how long does it take to get this done? Are the airlines being penny-wise pound-foolish or just plain disorganised? Isn't it somewhat awkward when our Indian aircraft, including those of our market leader, cannot land in other countries where similar low visibility conditions affect landing conditions and the aircraft has to be diverted as the pilot is not equipped to handle the landing? What explanation do we offer? This is trifle embarrassing and of course inconvenient for all concerned.
Moreover, all the players need to improve their information dissemination: inform passengers well in time so they don't congregate, fret and fume at the airport. Again this is an annual problem but all airlines run into flight timing duty limit problems in situations of extreme delays and this aggravates matters as the aircraft can only depart once the next and fresh set of crew arrives. In IndiGo's case at present, the fact that many of its aircraft are on the ground due to engine problems also adds to its woes as a spare aircraft cannot be deployed easily to make up for disruptions.
While the delays and disruptions in the last month or so can be dismissed as aberrations, many regular fliers, industry observers, rivals and even company insiders agree that there are a few deeper issues at play within the airline that need looking into.
One, the airline has in the last couple of years been alienating a lot of passengers — many of whom claim to fly it only when they have no other option, which of course is quite often. Many of these fliers were fairly loyal IndiGo customers who adopted the airline as their first choice post Jet's demise but have veered away over time as they perceive an overall deterioration in the product on offer. This cohort — which also invariably compares with Jet — argues that the so-called low fares on offer have translated into reasonably high fares with poorer service, a bit akin to many low fare airlines in the U.S.
In the crew and commanders across airlines' defence, readers must keep in mind that the Indian flying public and the average passenger is not the easiest customer, often treating the crew as their personal servant and the aircraft as their fiefdom. And entitled to a point where they appear under the misconception that by purchasing a seat they own the aircraft, One can, therefore, fully understand and empathise with the predicament of the crew. An unenviable job, crew in India often appear at the end of their tether and unable to mask their impatience with what they perceive to be unacceptable treatment. This is, of course, far worse on international flights where the consumption of alcohol acts as a stimulant and an excuse to justify acts bordering on criminality.
But for some time now, passengers — even more rational ones — have been describing IndiGo's service on board as clinical, lacking empathy and compassion and of late the word "arrogance" is creeping into almost every regular flier's parlance when referring to the market leader. Most blame it on its monopoly status and the fact that the staff has begun to consider itself indispensable. The message many fliers take away: you don't like us, go take a hike. This is usually the undoing of carriers in the long term, as the moment a viable option appears on the horizon, people jump ship. Team IndiGo might snigger at the mis-steps of the Tatas and Air India today but we live in a world of ever shifting sands.
Jumping ship by fliers is one issue but a festering problem that the management has so far failed to tackle head-on is the loss of commanders and crew, many of whom are disillusioned and looking at all possible avenues to exit the airline. This unhappiness stems from a range of reasons that include rosters that crew feel pushes them to the limit and the fact that the airline is not inducting wide bodies, the next logical step for many commanders. To some even Air India — at least from the outside — is looking like a rosier option presently! IndiGo pilots keep predicting a mass exodus at some stage and seem gleeful that the carrier would pay the price for it. Not the happiest employer-employee equation. Many are hopeful that the new FTDL announced by DGCA — if and when fully implemented — will reduce some of their workload and stress but nobody is banking on it.
A third problem that company insiders point to is a management disconnect from the reality on the ground. Middle management and ground staff argue that the line of command has blinkers on and is often missing or unclear especially during a phase of irregular operations plans (IROP). This leads to confusion and often conflicting instructions to the ground staff, which adds to the chaos instead of mitigating it. In the chain and flow of command, the final instruction that lands in the ear of the staffer directly handling the mayhem may often be a garbled version of the original. Top management often tend to be quite removed and even oblivious. This of course would not be an allegation against IndiGo's management alone and often holds true in many large companies and businesses. Size and scale often works to one's advantage, but tips over as easily.
Faced with all of the above — circumstances within and beyond the airline's control — what is the best course of action for it? The weather gods and other stakeholders including the airport operator's readiness and response are factors out of its control as is the venting and drama on social media, which is a genie that has escaped the bottle and will never be reined in again. What it can do is rectify and resolve some of the issues it faces internally.
One, it needs to listen to and constructively fix the problems faced by commanders and crew. Offering them higher compensation and better pay packages will help but only to an extent. Eventually, the work life balance will become a critical factor in the decision to stay with the airline or exit it. Even more important, while they remain with it, they should be wishing it well, not praying for its downfall.
Two, it needs more of its senior and top management to have their ear to the ground and be both accessible and capable of dealing with situations that require special handling. There's a huge gap here, even by the admission of those who currently occupy some of these posts.
Three, a massive re-orientation — several rounds of it in fact — that puts the staff right back in its place: feet firmly on the ground in service driven industries is a critical ingredient for long term success. The arrogance that might have willy-nilly crept in due to size and scale needs to be urgently ejected and the message that low frills or cheaper tickets does not automatically justify rude behaviour needs to be drilled into the rank and file. In the ultimate analysis, what you give is what you get.
And last but not the least, regular sessions of coping mechanisms for those interacting regularly with difficult fliers wouldn't hurt. Passenger behavior is unlikely to change in a hurry so the only way to deal with miscreants, offenders and idiots is to fortify one's own ability to withstand them. As the saying goes, my people skills are just fine; it's my tolerance to idiots that needs work.