In his vastly entertaining and informative novel published in 1968, Arthur Hailey tells among other things how a stowaway boards the plane secure in the knowledge that once airborne, there is no way she can be grounded or disembarked. To the millennials, this vignette of information may appear to be exaggerated or a figment of fertile imagination but in those times security indeed was lax. Since the flight was not full, she could get away with her impish gameplan.
The looming threat of flights being hijacked by terrorists has made airlines and authorities highly security conscious. The upshot is passengers these days are scanned and allowed entry into the plane only on production of the boarding pass that establishes a flier’s bona fides. It is also common knowledge that in most of the international flights of American and British airlines a marshal masquerading as a passenger is present just in case.
So, the boarding pass is now an essential document for air travel. Ever since its advent, it has been built into the fare because it is a security and auditing drill and not the one insisted upon by passengers. So much so, irate fliers, who have been accepting other measures such as convenience fee for online booking with stoic calm, are incensed over Indigo and SpiceJet among others asking for Rs 200 per boarding pass if a passenger reports to the airport without prior web check-in. The issue has riled passengers so much that Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia has promised to look into their grouse.
Clutching at straws
Airlines, especially low-cost airlines (LCA) or no-frills airlines, are justified in cutting costs especially in India where aviation fuel costs a fortune, Ukraine war or not, thanks among other things to avaricious fuel taxation regime. Add to this, rigidities in pricing in order to empathize with airline companies that cut corners by several means, including refueling in gulf countries where oil is cheap and also by latching onto regulatory loopholes like fare not exceeding Rs 2,500 for flights whose duration is not more than an hour. Now it is de rigueur for airlines to show the flight time from Chennai to Hyderabad as one hour five minutes from the earlier 55 minutes! When in extremis, you clutch at straws don’t you? Be that as it may.
There is nothing wrong in charging for preferred seats. There is nothing wrong either in charging for food and beverages by LCA. There is nothing wrong too in charging for entertainment by LCA. What is wrong, however, is foisting some of the expenses of airlines on the unsuspecting fliers.
Why should one pay for boarding pass no matter whether one is not net-savvy or not when the fare implicitly includes cost of boarding pass? Why should one pay convenience fee for self-booking online when the boot is on the other leg — it is the airline that benefits more by getting rid of responsibilities and related expenses on operating and maintaining a booking office complete with staff and security? To be sure, the payment gateway that handles card and net banking payments has to be compensated but not so much as to justify a whopping Rs 300 per flier. In any case, the phenomenal savings arising from she doing herself in terms of office and sales overheads justifies the airline taking the payment gateway expenses in its stride.
Shape up or ship out
A business exists by choice and not under sufferance. Shape up or ship out. Airlines operate in an ecosystem where regulatory compliances galore is inevitable. With India opening its skies more than two decades ago, competition has intensified. Corona laid waste airlines’ fleets. Remember airline is a capital-intensive industry and fixed expenses tick at a furious pace whether you fly or not.
So, while one understands the constraints and compulsions of airlines, that doesn’t justify making passengers the scapegoats. If left unchecked, next fliers may be asked to pay for using the plane’s loo midair! There can be no justification for passing on expenses onto passengers not even on the facile ground that they are par for the course with the pedigreed American airline companies setting an example.
By the way, our private hospitals took a cue from the American hospitals to fleece the patients — billing on the basis of number of visits by the doctor during the day, billing on the basis of number of nurses standing in attendance during the day, billing on the basis of number of ward-boys on duty and so on.
When my mother was gasping for breath with severe lungs impairment, a pulmonologist was summoned on SOS basis who came and fixed the oxygen tube that had come off. The end of the day bill showed Rs 2,500 towards this emergency service! Airline and hospital industries don’t bill on cost plus basis, do they? Let airlines be fleetfooted. Let them operate red-eye flights as they do in the US offering passengers taking the inconvenience of flying in the dark in their stride an attractive discount. But clever by half strategies, no!