Should you pay to get the seat you want on your flight? The debate raged on social media but the fact is that it’s not a new practice
Recently, when a prominent low-cost carrier in India started charging for all its seats if one checked-in online, it set off a furore on social media. But, then it emerged that many airlines charged for seats during online check-in unless you wanted to depend on the airline gods. This had many folks cribbing that this was unfair.
However, the fact is that this is a standard practice across the world and has been brought about thanks to very low fares. Yes, often airlines do some incredibly stupid things that become public relations nightmares, but charging for seats is not one of them and when you get a 1,000 rupee ticket on a flight, often cheaper and certainly much faster than a train, sitting in the middle seat should not seem like a torture.
The economics of the airline industry has changed dramatically over the past two decades thanks to the advent of no-frills carriers. Back in 2000, a return ticket to Mumbai from Delhi cost around Rs 12,000 (in Economy). There was one booking class, flights were limited and often waitlisted. Today, there are over 80 flights a day between India’s two most important cities, and return fares, other than during the festive season, can be had for as little as Rs 8,000, often even less if you choose the red-eye flights, which could be as little as Rs 5,000 return.
So fares have actually come down in absolute terms, but in real terms, when you account for the cost of money, air fares are at a quarter of what they were. At the same time, India’s fleet of civil aircraft has gone from under a 100 back in 2000 to over 600 today and the number of domestic travellers from around 10 million-odd to an estimated 150 million today. Air fares have come down despite oil prices shooting up, the cost of planes and salaries climbing as well.
And that has democratised flying. Many of you reading this at Delhi airport could be occasional flyers who would never have dreamed of flying even five years ago. And that is a great thing. Flying should not just be the privilege of the wealthy and the elite. In a large country like India, flying is a necessity.
The Ministry of Railways might make for fun tweets on the issue but the fact is the Delhi-Mumbai Rajdhani still takes 17 hours, while the door-to-door travel when taking a plane (including time spent at the airport) will be less than six hours. Time is money when travelling on business and time is wasted when travelling on vacation. Indians do not have time to take long-distance trains if they can afford it unless they enjoy the leisurely pace of steel wheels.
One reason the airline business has changed is because very often airlines actually run their flights at a loss. This is a model pioneered by Ryanair and their eccentric and extremely successful Chief Executive, Michael O’Leary. Ryanair’s model includes flying to out-of-the-way airports which is not possible in India, but the idea of selling cheap tickets to passengers to fly the aircraft at a loss has been copied. O’Leary, however, is no altruistic fool.
The airline makes what is described as ancillary revenue, that is the sale of excess luggage, food, priority services and seats. Ryanair has been charging for seats for years now and is considering implementing a policy that will restrict even carry-on luggage. So unless you pay for the overhead bin you cannot use it. Ryanair can charge just 20 Euros to travel between Barcelona and London (Rs 1,700), and if you want a fun weekend there, it is cheaper and faster than any other way of getting there.
But think about it, if you are travelling to Mumbai for just a meeting and not spending the night, all you need is your laptop case and chargers, which can fit easily under the seat in front of you, so why wouldn’t you take a barebones ticket? If you are flying for cheap, you should not expect a red carpet.
Of course, if you are flying with a lot of luggage, children or just want the guarantee of a window seat, you should pay for the services because the base fare is already next to nothing. No airline is forcing you to buy any food or additional services onboard and if you want food, an assured seat or a blanket onboard, you have the choice of flying other full-service airlines in India. Not that airline food is great whether it is paid or free on most flights. And the same applies if you are taking an international flight as well. Many seats are paid even during online check-in unless you are flying a higher fare category or business class.
Yes, airlines can do some very stupid things at times and can often be tone-deaf to complaints, but in an era of paid seats, do remember that is the small price you have to pay for cheaper airfares. At the same time, do remember that fewer people will be willing to ‘adjust’ so that you can sit together with your friends or family, because if you have paid for something you are highly unlikely to give it up and you would be right in doing that. And a couple of hundred rupees for a seat are still cheaper than the stone-cold samosas that you might buy onboard!
The fact is that air travel is today a necessity for many of us and it is far from being romantic. Crowded airports, screaming children and tediously long lines have made the romance of the ‘good old days’ of air travel disappear, and one of the largest manufacturers of aircraft uses the brand name ‘Airbus’ after all. That said, air travel is also the safest form of long-distance transportation, which makes it all the more convenient. And if I am asked to pay a slight bit, I should not mind. However, it will be useful for airlines to put out these facts in black-and-white on their booking channels, as well as offer a category of fare that allows me to choose my seat well in advance.
Most airlines already do this and for us passengers, we should also realise that air travel has moved from the realm of the exotic to the realm of the stupefyingly regular and treat it that way. A few hundred rupees should not really make a difference unless we admit that we are nothing more than perpetually outraged.
(The writer is Managing Editor, The Pioneer)