Will air travel in India become cheap again? Will typical Indian middle class families comprising noisy unruly kids and carting food neatly packed in multiple tiffin boxes, be able to afford a plane ticket again?

Just a few years back this was possible.

The thrifty train traveling population of India that likes to pack homemade Poorie (oily form of bread) and Pickle to save money at restaurants could afford to fly to exotic destinations such as Goa at rail fare budgets.

The offerings were from low cost no-frills airlines such as Indigo, Go Air, Spice Jet and the erstwhile Air Deccan. If one got lucky online, the air fare could even be cheaper than the to and fro airport taxi expense.

Swarms of itinerant Indians clicked themselves for the first time inside aero planes proudly displayed in personal albums or later Facebook alongside the must do moments in front of the magnificent Taj Mahal or the Qutub Minar.

Planes turned into noisy picnic spots. This writer remembers couple of instances of kindly aunties happily distributing their home cooked food stuff to any passenger that cared to par-take the victuals like it often happens during Indian train travel.

Even the crew joined the party. Only the state-owned Indian Airlines, comprising forever in a bad mood crew, continued to lose customers.

To take on competition the carrier changed name to Air India for whatever reason, while heavily losing money even as the unionized staff aggressively fought with the government for better salary and perks. The flying experience, however, was overhauled, courtesy the private players. 

For those who could afford it, there was full fare Kingfisher Airlines, named after the popular beer brand, usually patronized by the snooty suited corporate class, traveling on company expense with access to free booze at business class lounges and added attention of very pretty and leggy hostesses for the feel good factor.

Kingfisher’s extravagance included gifts to each passenger and a personal message on individual screens, another novelty for a domestic carrier, delivered in style by diamond earring-studded king of good times Vijay Mallya exhorting “guests’’ to live life king size.

The gorgeous Yana Gupta in a micro mini explained the life jacket process. All passengers listened and watched for a change.

There is something electrifying about a very pretty girl, otherwise clothed, wearing and taking off a life jacket. Still, even if everybody could not afford the Kingfisher experience, at least air travel was.

Until, it all came crashing down due to high fuel costs, taxes, government mismanagement of air routes and Kighfisher selling a dream beyond its means.

If one happiness index is measured by the shorter length of the mini skirt, the Kingfisher girls, selected personally by Mallya, have completely disappeared and so has the airlines. The flying business is not another free flowing beer party, it is about keeping costs in check Mallya realized, or maybe he still hasn’t.

The high flying company executives have since occupied low cost airlines seats now priced much more than the erstwhile full fare rates.

The corporate tickets continue to be packaged with free meals on board to keep the envy factor alive. Those paying from their own pockets obviously do not shell out Rs 200 for an extra-spicy, extra-oily sandwich, just because one is midair for a couple of hours. Sadly, the friendly flying aunties dishing out delicious Poories to spread all round happiness have disappeared.

The budget traveler, already struggling with rising inflation, except cell phones that only seem to get cheaper, has been pushed out. There is only so much that one can do with a cheap hand set, with almost-free roaming facility, if traveling is unaffordable.

Flying to Goa is a middle class dream once again, the sublime beaches accessible only on post cards.  One can actually visit South East Asia at similar fares, with the added label of having visited a foreign country. 

The Poorie and Pickle traveling section, described infamously by the eloquent Shashi Tharoor as the cattle class, are back to rail and bus holidays, given limitations of absolute travel budgets.

This brings back the original question? Will the rail travelers again graduate to flying? Changes are happening in India’s struggling aviation sector following amendments to foreign investment rules.

A new low cost domestic carrier backed by AirAsia, the indefatigable Ratan Tata and Tata Group is in the offing.

Foreign players such as Emirates and Etihad are looking at investment options in Spice Jet, Jet Airways and the grounded Kingfisher infusing much needed capital. A price war is currently underway, though cheap tickets are still very difficult to come by. Will India’s aviation sector sustain?

Will the cattle class be able to occupy planes again? Will the pretty model hostesses of Kingfisher airlines be back with their life jacket performances?

One can only hope for the best.

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