Airline economics

The first time I flew from Delhi where I have lived since 1958 and Madras, as it was called then, was in the late 1970s. The flight, said the Captain, will take two hours and twenty minutes. We took off at 5 pm on the iconic IC 539 (or was it 540) and landed at 7.20. India had only one domestic airline then, Indian Airlines, which was merged about ten years ago with Air India which flew the international routes. For the next 30 years, that is all the time it took between the two cities — 2 hrs 20 mins.

So imagine my astonishment when the ticket on the private airline said departure 1110 hrs, arrival 1420 hrs. That was three hours and ten minutes. Hello, I asked myself, have I been given a one-stop flight? Or am I flying on a turbo-prop plane? I checked and checked — on the ticket, on the airline’s flight schedule, on the flight tracking apps but all said it was a non-stop flight.

So I got on to Twitter and asked if the two cities had moved apart. Again, despite 100-odd responses, I got no satisfactory answer until someone said it had to do with an indicator called ‘on-time performance’. You claim you are not late by saying that the flight will take longer. Then when you land in what is the normal flight time — after all the distance remains the same as does the speed at which the plane flies — you say you have excellent on-time performance.

The airlines charge double for half of the snacks that they used to give two years ago, and extra for all but the middle seats. It puts Shylock to shame.

This extended flying time printed on the ticket allows them to take off late — as happened in my case. We took off 50 minutes late and arrived on time after 2hrs 20mins! This after the airline had coerced me to report two hours before departure saying they would not wait if I tarried. To add insult to injury they had charged an arm and a leg for the ticket. They also charged double for half of the snacks that they used to give two years ago. This airline also charges extra for all but the middle seats. It puts Shylock to shame.

But I had my revenge. Once the seatbelt sign had been turned off, I found a premium seat and moved there. The stewardess, who was barely out of school, said I needed to pay for it. But I just frowned hard at her and the poor thing scampered off, possibly not wanting to annoy someone who looked like her less-favoured grandfather.

But seriously, folks, what are these airlines up to? As a consultant of long standing at a transport research institute, I am something of an expert on transport generally and aviation particularly. I just can’t understand how the government — the DGCA to be precise — is allowing the private airlines to gouge customers so much.

I understand the general economics that if demand exceeds supply a higher price will be charged. But in the case of airlines that is simply not the case. They charge whatever they like — much higher or much lower than what their costs would warrant. The dynamic pricing algorithm ignores costs altogether. The pricing is completely opaque.

Anyway, my happiness at sitting comfortably was over the moment we landed in Delhi. We were herded on to a bus and driven to the old international terminal that is now called T2 and is the new domestic terminal used by airlines that pretend they are low-cost. The terminal was built in 1986 and looks it. The only thing that has changed is the smell from the toilets that hit us when we entered it. I can bet it also belonged to the late 1980s.

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