Air India Boeing 747-400 VT-ESP Ajanta. Image copyright Devesh Agarwal.
Air India Boeing 747-400 VT-ESP Ajanta. Image copyright Devesh Agarwal.

Air India’s Emperor Class. How the Indian aristocracy abuses its “NetJets”

Officially India gained independence from monarchy on August 15, 1947. Fast forward these 66 years and the current breed of India’s aristocracy is very much alive and kicking.

The British colonists may have left India, but the “Raj” continues, if only by a different name.

Welcome to Air India’s Emperor Class.

Not the earlier Boeing 747s, the carrier named after famous Indian emperors, Emperor Ashoka, Emperor Kanishka, and others, but the regular usurping of the Boeing 747-400’s of the hapless carrier’s fleet, in a blatant act of profligacy, conducted in the name of the modern day emperors on a regular basis.

Air India One plus one more

Whenever the Indian President or Prime Minister travel abroad, the Government of India takes command of and charters the Boeing 747-400s of Air India.

Prime Minister Singh. PIB Photo.

The aircraft spend a few days being re-configured. The leader has to travel is a level above First Class, since that is already reserved for the hordes of accompanying government officials. Former President Patil used to even take her cooks along.

Completing the cabal are the media persons, who after due protests, now travel in Business Class.

This whole entourage travels on board Air India One.

Interestingly, if there is an accompanying business delegation, normally comprising the nation’s top business leaders and some of the largest tax-payers, they have to fly in a separate aircraft, and pay their own way.

Since it is the top echelon leadership travelling, one Boeing 747-400 is not enough. Another Boeing 747-400 aircraft is similarly prepared and kept on stand-by, just in case the first one develops any problems. So Air India One always has a “Plus One”.

True costs and hidden subsidies

Indian President at Dhaka. B744 wingtip behind. PIB photo.

As per reports, Air India billed the Defence Ministry for over Rs. 169 crore for aircraft used by former President Patil. The costs for Prime Minister Singh’s travel are not known.

Assuming a typical charter rate for a Boeing 747-400 at around $35,000 per hour, the daily cost of chartering the two Boeing 747-400s is about Rs. 9.24 crore per day, thus arriving at a mere 18 days worth of charter. President Patil has undertaken 12 trips covering 22 countries across four continents.

12 trips in just 18 days?

Just re-configuring the aircraft from passenger to presidential travel and back to passenger would take at least two days per trip. For 12 trips that is 24 days i.e. lost income of Rs. 221.76 crore. Where is this amount billed? Is Air India being forced to covertly subsidise, at least in part, the cost of leaders’ travels? Till some one files an RTI petition we may never know.

Domestically, the leaders use a Boeing Business Jet.

But on top of these explicit costs, there is a hidden cost involved.

The carrier loses two large capacity aircraft for a few days, which disrupts its schedules, causing irritation to its passengers, which naturally costs the airline what little credibility they have, forcing them to drop prices to unprofitable level just to bring back passengers.

Lose on the charter, lose on the passenger.

To complete this messy circle, the Government pumps more of our tax money into the airline, while demanding performance improvements by an airline management, appointed by them, dependent on them for promotions and postings, and who will naturally accept the regular abuse of the airline and its resources, with a deafening silence.

Profligacy rules

For their domestic travel, the Indian government first imported a dedicated fleet of Embraer business jets, for VVIP (Very Very Important Person i.e. top echelon leaders) use. Then another fleet of 737 based Boeing Business Jets (BBJs), again for VVIP use. These cost less than a quarter of a Boeing 747-400 to operate, and are already configured for leadership use.

Ukraine’s official A319

Recently, the Indian President, and former finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee visited the neighbouring nation of Bangladesh.

The distance from New Delhi to Dhaka is a mere 1,426km, a lot less than the 2,260km to the southern capital of Thiruvananthapuram, the President takes in the BBJ. (See map here).

Despite the shorter distance, since the Bangladesh visit is an international trip, the President’s travel has to be by Air India One.

In comparison to this wanton waste, when the President of Ukraine visited India, he came on a small official Airbus A319.

When President Sarkozy of France visited India, he came on a medium sized official Airbus A330. When we left for Agra on a private holiday, he flew by a private charter, not the official aircraft.

France’s official A330.

When Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom visited India, he flew in a chartered Virgin Atlantic two class configured plane.

Why did he not choose flag carrier British Airways?

It turns out, that British Airways planes have a First Class and the British Prime Minister is only allowed travel by Business Class. Nothing higher, even if offered for free.

At a time when the when the global economy is still weak, the Indian economy is at a precipice, the Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram is raising taxes on “luxury” services like a McDonald’s air-conditioned restaurant, and calling for “fiscal restraint”, one is befuddled these acts of profligacy, regularly undertaken in the name of the leaders of India.

Surely both President Mukherjee and Prime Minister Singh can easily demonstrate their commitment to expenditure control by abandoning the use of Air India One.

Alas this may be just wishful thinking. As long as the government considers itself the modern day aristocracy, it will continue to hold on to Air India. For them, it is not an airline, but instead, their own personal “NetJets”; an air transportation service, at their beck and call, to use and abuse.

As usual, your thoughts and comments are most welcome.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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