What defines a super power? Experts have suggested many definitions — money, muscle, culture etc — but I have just one criterion: what time does your plane take off on an international flight from India. By this definition, India is far, far away from being even a simple power, let alone a super one. The reason, and I am not joking, is that 94 per cent of the international flights that leave Indian airports do so between 10 pm and 3 am. This means you fly mostly through darkness in a dimly-lit cabin where everyone is digesting their dinner — and when dawn comes you have to use dirty toilets. God forbid that you have a dodgy tummy or even worse, the dreaded IBS.
Soon after you board at, say, 2 am, they serve you alcohol and a meal because that’s what the international civil aviation rules say. It’s nearly 3 am and you are dropping off to sleep after the long-drawn hassle of check-in, immigration and security when some equally hard-pressed member of the cabin crew wakes you up with a fake smile and a low-pitched growl: anything to eat or drink, Sir? It takes you another half-an-hour to nod off. You just sit there in utter misery till then. There is a final indignity to come. Three hours after serving alcohol and a horrible roll, they serve a full breakfast at 6 am. You tell yourself, if there’s hell on earth this must be it. It doesn’t matter where in the plane you are sitting — economy, premium economy, business or even first class. It’s all the same. Sheer misery if you have to fly between midnight and 8 am.
Most international flights leave India between 10 pm and 3 am. You fly mostly through darkness in a dimly-lit cabin where everyone is digesting their dinner — and when dawn comes you have to use dirty toilets.
I love daytime flights because the cabin is not dark, the toilets are clean, you can enjoy your drinks and your meal and the movies and the short nap before the plane starts it’s descent. They serve tea and coffee and a snack, and it’s all very civilised. You land when the sun is still up, not rising, and you reach your hotel or home in time for a hot shower and a drink and nice dinner followed by a good night’s sleep. That’s what almost all the passengers in the western countries enjoy when they take an international flight.
However, it’s not as if other countries don’t have such night flights. In the US they call them red-eye flights because you land with that awful burning sensation in your eyes, which are red because of lack of sleep. And guess what. They all seem to be coming to India, from almost anywhere in the world. You fly overnight to
London and then overnight from there to India. As I said, hell on earth.
The truth is that other countries are tough about this. They minimise the flights that inconvenience their citizens. But we are weak when it comes to this. We don’t insist that our airports will shut between 11 pm and 5 am. No takeoffs, no landings. Take it or leave it. We don’t say our airlines will fly at decent times that suit our citizens, not yours. Until that happens, India will remain, in my eyes at least, a minor power.
Many years ago, I asked the minister for civil aviation why this should be so. Are Indians third-class citizens of the world? His reply stunned me. Look at it this way, he said. You save the cost of one night in a hotel plus you get almost the entire day after you reach to work. I asked him if India thought the rest of the world was stupid to have not thought of this. He said yes, we Indians are very clever.
If you have heard of worse nonsense than this, please let me know.