What India's Airlines Can Teach America

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By Sriram Gollapalli

As a consultant, I flew over 500,000 miles in a short, four-year span.  More recently, after spending two weeks on a five-airport/11-plane/four-city tour throughout India in February, and the repeated aviation-related topics that this very space regularly addresses, I wanted to share my thoughts on what we could learn (and in some cases, not repeat) here in the U.S. from the Indian airline industry and airport procedures.

1. Flights can be advanced (seemingly without too much notice)

I had never had that happen in the US before, have you?

  • Pros: Getting to your destination early is never a bad thing in my book
  • Cons: Could I have missed my flight even though I got there on time?
  • My take: If everyone is on board/checked-in, airlines should make more of an effort to try to leave before time (regulations and air-traffic control withstanding).

2. SMS alerts to share real-time airline status

These are extremely prevalent and relied upon to share information about airline status (I feel that this is not as effectively leveraged in the U.S.).

  • Pros: Quick, short information about flights shared in real-time.
  • Cons: Some (minor) infrastructure cost involved
  • My take: US airlines should make this more of a default option to share real-time information with passengers.

3. ID checksThere was one occasion when I was never asked to show my ID (but a single member of my six-person boarding party did).

  • Pros: Takes me back 15+ years ago when I believe there were fewer, less stringent ID checks here.
  • Cons: We'll never know if number 913 from the no-fly or persons-of-interest lists just boarded that flight.
  • My take: TSA is doing a great job here!

4. Name/boarding pass stringencyThis is a tougher one.  I recently got married, and we haven't gone through the official name change (yet) for my wife. Having said that, there were a few occasions where her boarding pass had my last name, or my boarding pass had some spelling errors.  With a little bit of conversation, these were never a problem to reason out with the attending officer when checked (see #3).

  • Pros: Airline staff were reasonable and never caused a problem to allow us to board.
  • Cons: In the highly unlikely event that two people have slightly differing names, this could be cause for a harmful event.
  • My take: Last November, I purchased two flights tickets for friends of mine to fly from Boston to DC.  I accidentally put the same last name on both tickets (even though they were not related).  We didn't realize this until the day of the flight, and my friend frantically called me saying that they won't let him board because the name did not match.  After several frustrating phone calls, I had to repurchase a brand new ticket for him in his name.  Even though the "name" is effectively "arbitrary" (one can type whomever or whatever name you want upon purchasing), there is zero tolerance for changing that name post-purchase. This policy needs to change.

5. Boarding from the tail end as well as the head section pic1.JPGof the aircraft

This usually occurred when we "walked" to the plane* (on tarmac) from the airport.
  • Pro: Faster boarding process
  • Con: Infrastructure may not always be available to accommodate this.
  • My take: It would be interesting to see this model tried out in a few airports between a few legs to see the public reaction and efficiencies that could be gained.
*Walking to the plane happens only at very small airports (similar to airports with less than five gates in the U.S.)

6. Friendly flight attendants

Flight attendants seemed very cheery, and there were two occasions where they picked up little children, smiled, rubbed the children's hair in a jovial manner.  It seemed like a bit much, but also had a warm and fuzzy feeling to it.
  • Pros: Overall, a pleasant experience.
  • Cons: In today's libel and litigious environment, this would probably never "fly" in the U.S.
  • My take: Friendly flight attendants always result in a more pleasant flying experience.  My most recent flight experience with Virgin America had a stark contrast with a U.S. Airways flight that followed. Some may recall when Independence Air flew out of Washington Dulles, and to this day, they were some of the most friendly, bubbly personalities I encountered.
7. Great free food/meals on non-discount carriers

  • Pro: Remember the days when you didn't have to pay for "quality" food on American carriers?
  • Con: Remember the days when you didn't have to pay for "quality" food on American carriers?
We can never seem to get this one right.

8. Overall security screening process typically found during all my flights:
  1. At the check-in counter, ensure that "blank" airline tags are attached to all carry-on bags
  2. Segregate men and women into two different security lines
  3. Everyone goes through metal detectors, pat down (women behind curtains). The "pat down" here means they swipe a metal detector rod across your body as opposed to our (in)famous and intimate TSA pat downs. Security staff stamp the boarding pass and tags on carry-on items
  4. Wait for boarding
  5. Leave airport (either via connected jetway, on a bus to the plane or directly on tarmac) Airline staff check all carry-on items for stamped security checked bags (if it is a bit of a walk, then they check it a few times)
  6. Arrive at plane (usually 1 to 10 min later depending on mode of arrival), airline personnel check stamped security bags again
  • Pros: Increase perceived security about carry-opic2.JPGn luggage?
  • Cons: Too many steps and checks that seemed like a waste of labor and time.
  • My take: We have enough work for our TSA employees, let's not add any more responsibilities here.
9. Shoes?
 
Speaking with my relatives in India, the last time they had to take off their shoes was when they visited the U.S.!
  • Pros: A much quicker check-in/security process.
  • Cons: Reid could strike again.
  • My take: Another case of America being reactive vs proactive, but it's hard to make a convincing argument one way or the other here.
Sriram Gollapalli is a founder and the Chief Operating Officer of iLab Solutions, based in Cambridge, MA.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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