“Air India is not like other companies,” says Nancy Chia Kuo, the first local reservation agent hired at the New York office of the venerable Indian state carrier, back in 1959, at the tender age of 23.
Now even at 83, and despite having retired in 1998, Kuo’s memory of how she landed up in the office of Air India more than 60 years ago, are vivid, she told News India Times. And they might just be the reasons this beleaguered airline continues – its loyalty and commitment to the diaspora.
Kuo’s account is like a ‘Let me count the ways…” tale of why and how a young woman from Hong Kong, trained in Taiwan, ended up taking Air India’s job offer over all the various American carriers. For one thing, “It paid much more than the others,” Kuo says – a magnificent sum $350 per month compared to the $250 and $300 by various American carriers; She also had foresight. “I felt I could contribute more of my experience in a small office” And most of all, the people were “very” nice.
While the demand for airline workers was huge those days, and other airlines ran huge advertisements in the New York Times, when Kuo went to those offices, she saw people herded like cattle – “like a factory” – and “not elegant.”
She decided to answer a “tiny, tiny ad, like the size of a thumbnail,” which did not mention the name of the airline but asked for a person with ticketing and reservations experience. She applied, went next day to Tata offices where Air India operated from initially, was interviewed by Peter Mahta, regional manager for North America, who also, like Kuo, moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong.
Mahta told her he would let her know next day if she was hired, but when she got home Kuo found a message from his secretary that she should come next day to start work.
“That’s Karma,” Kuo says in a clear young voice.
What kept her with this airline, she said, was the fact that everyone was “very, very nice” to her through her 40 years there, including Mahta who died in 2012; and that “Mr. Andy Bhatia made it like we were school alumni. Every year we got together, and so I remember everything; all my colleagues.”
Bhatia was Air India passenger sales manager for Northeast U.S.
Air India’s first flight from Bombay landed at Idlewild Airport, now JFK, on May 14, 1960.
Today, as Air India carries back stranded passengers back to India from the U.S., as part of the Government of India’s massive #VandeBharatMission of repatriation, those early days appear attractive. It was a difficult time of transition for this great airline even before COVID-19 hit the industry, but now a crisis mode has overcome every airline in the world.
But those being ferried back and forth under such dangerous circumstances, may still feel that sense of reliability for India’s flagship but troubled airline.
“Right now, it’s a great gesture by the Government of India to use the flagship airline to take the thousands of Indian citizens stuck in the United States,” said Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, chairman and CEO of Parikh Worldwide Media. “More evacuation flights are needed because ten times more people from India need to go back. It will be good for Air India and for the citizens,” he added.
Dr. Parikh, and others News India Times spoke to, expressed a sense of home pervading their being as they entered the cabin.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Those who have used Air India over these last six decades, generally give it a good grade.
“It’s a good airline with good service. Overall above-average. When we leave India to come back to the U.S., it feels like we are leaving India but we are still there,” said Dr.Parikh.
“When I traveled in the 1980s and ’90s, I flew Air India. I loved it. I felt at home soon as entering the plane,” said Anju Bhargava of Maryland. “Before you reached India, you were already in India. I felt a sense of comfort, a sense of belonging. … a feeling of ‘apnaapan’. And I traveled economy, but you didn’t feel you were in a ‘cattle cart’.”
“I first flew on Air India to the U.S. in 1976, when I came on a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University,” recalls Dr. Sampat Shivangi of Mississippi, chairman of the Mississippi State Board of Mental Health. “It was seen by us as the ‘Pride of India’ and my cousin was an air hostess in Air India.”
“It has lost its glamour and it is a sad situation today. The most recent time I flew to India in 2019 for the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, I saw the difference between my first flight and now,” Shivangi said.
The airline has grown with the expanding diaspora, and especially the Indians and Indian-American community in the U.S. which has grown exponentially.
Social and trade organizations founded by Indians in the U.S. have a symbiotic relationship with Air India.
The Federation of Indian Associations, FIA, put out a one page advertisement to congratulate Air India for the 60th anniversary of its first flight to the U.S.,
“We had a big plan for a dinner event, but had to cancel it because of COVID-19,” Anil Bansal, the president of FIA told News India Times. He has been flying on the Indian carrier for nearly 40 years,
“I’ve always had a soft corner for Air India,” he said criticizing those who point to failings of the airline over time.
FOR SERVICE NOT PROFIT
“On the one hand, Indians like to point out shortcomings – but that’s like criticizing the U.S. Postal Service. But can you imagine a life without Air India?” he exclaims, “It’s like living without the U.S. Postal service,” contending that it had connected U.S. and India for those of Indian origin.
“Yes, it has issues, but it provides service at a competitive price. Whole families travel every year to India on it; my parents prefer Air India because they are comfortable with language and other things in flight,” Bansal said. “And most of all, I have seen over the decades how it is always there for the community, for social and religious organizations. For FIA, if there’s one consistent partner, it is Air India,” he asserted.
At this time of COVID-19, that connection to community has strengthened. Even before COVID, Indian-Americans point to previous evacuations from countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, where stranded citizens were taken home by the signature airline.
A “lifeline” for Indians abroad, Air India has engaged with communities, giving away airline tickets as prizes at umpteen social events; even bringing a little bit of home on university campuses by sponsoring movies and cultural shows. Not something you hear about with other airlines.
And seldom does a flight go to India without being chock-a-block full, from any airport in North America.
While its financial straits leave Air India vulnerable to the vagaries of the market, some feel it should still be a government airline, one that can be afforded for the larger majority of the Indians living abroad, and Indians traveling abroad, more and more every day, with the rising middle class in the homeland.
Over the period May 7 to 15, 2020, several flights from the U.S. evacuated thousands of Indian citizens back to India. But these flights were also assisted by Indian-Americans in so many ways, as India’s Consul General in New York said – arranging for a physician to carry out the temperature checks at departure areas; vetting some of the applicants; informing government officials of special cases for compassionate treatment.
On May 14 night, Indian-American physician Dr. Jayesh Patel of Jersey City, and his team checked all passengers at Newark’s Liberty International Airport before boarding. On another flight back on May 10, from the same airport, New York University student Ruhshad Bharda, noted how consular officials and others were risking their lives to make sure Indians were able to board the flight.
From around the world, Indian citizens are using social media, pleading with New Delhi to arrange outgoing flights to take them back to their country and Air India is the one they are all counting on to do it.
The history of this venerable airline from 1932, when JRD Tata inaugurated the first flight for carrying mail and passengers between cities now in Pakistan and India, and then to Sri Lanka, with a pause during World War II, becoming a public company, starting flights to western countries from 1948; becoming a national carrier in 1953, all the time keeping up with global airlines, and then, a massive push in the 1990s, to service several airports in the U.S.,
Air India was a pioneer of several counts – first to fly the longest non-stop flight; having women pilots, including those who flew these long, non-stop flights; helping out in the hour of need, including in life-threatening situations, where pilots and flight crew continue to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Though in debt and undergoing restructuring, attempts at privatizing have failed and there may be a message in that.
On May 15, just four minutes after the midnight of May 14, India’s Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu, stayed up to tweet, “Helping our citizens get back home. #VandeBharatMission …Sixth @airindiain evacuation flight from US departs Newark for Delhi and Hyderabad.”
Perhaps, like the first ticketing and reservations agent Nancy Kuo, Air India might remain the loyal and reliable friend that those abroad look to for the comfort of home on the way home, and back.