The last I checked, I hadn’t visited an airline office in years, unless you’d count hangar visits and training facilities into the list. The internet and telephone pretty much does it for me. My last visit to an airline office was in 2008 if my memory serves me right, and this was to an Air India ticketing office in Mumbai, because they couldn’t issue my tickets to Singapore online for some reason.

And then, it happened again, a visit to the same Air India office yesterday afternoon. It was not like I wanted to go or something, I’d rather have been punching away emails or making work phone calls or doing something productive. However, I was in the neighbourhood for a meeting, and it was made clear to me by AI that some tasks can only be accomplished at their offices. So, I took the opportunity to pop into their erstwhile headquarters at Air India building, Nariman Point, Mumbai.

The task on hand was to get some expired miles revalidated for use for the rest of the year. All though my intention to fly Air India a lot more is dependant on how their service works out over the rest of this week (doing a round trip on AI to try them out this week!) I sure don’t want to let my hard earned airmiles go waste, and hence i decided to pay the absolutely minimal fee of 10 paise per mile (approximately $0.0018) to be able to use them for another year or so. Now, any normal airline would let you do mileage related transactions on the phone, but this being AI, it beckoned a trip to their office.

I was let in after a farcical security check, and directed to the booking office. However, the first time around I went there, everyone was clueless about the visit and asked each other and decided I needed to visit a cubbyhole in the 4th floor of the building. So, I was asked to get a stupid paper security pass issued no less, and directed to the 4th floor.

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Now, once on the fourth floor, the emptiness of this office came to light. Most of Air India HQ had moved to Delhi a few months back. And all that was waiting outside the Frequent Flyer Program Cell was this cut-out welcoming me.

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Behind these closed doors, there were a lot of closed doors and almost no furniture or signs of life. I really had to guess which door to knock on or open, because there was a little creek showing me the lights were on inside. Otherwise, everything was empty. As it turned out, the FFP cell, as it is still called in the language of this carrier (though the trade name is Flying Returns), had two people inside, one of whom I saw playing a very popular card game that comes pre-installed on Windows OS computers. The other guy tried helping, and told me I had to go back to where I came from. I wanted to take some more pictures, but I did not because of security issues.

The walls were plastered with the new Air India fleet, something that clearly was not updated in a long time since their Boeing 787s were not present in these pictures. I arrived back in the booking office, and headed up to the guy who looked the senior most around there (everyone was salt n pepper, trust me). He told me the entire process, which meant waiting for 20 minutes before my turn came with an almost empty hall, since most of the employees were gone from their terminals as well. This is the place where you can see the divide between Air India and the erstwhile Indian Airlines pretty clearly. All these were Indian Airlines employees, who were still not unified with their folks at Air India after the merger of the two airlines years ago. A guy was loudly talking to someone on a cellphone, and telling him to be okay with the overbooking they were doing since it was someone else’s headache to offload the passengers once at the airport. I clicked some pictures, which should show you how these guys were managing time and resources.

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Like you can see, most terminals are not staffed and work was ongoing on a lazy pace. It was afterall a sultry summery Mumbai afternoon and the staff clearly did not feel like working it seems. Also, consensus seemed to be the way to work around here. Everyone would frequently consult one another, and the others would leave the customer they’d be attending at their counter to put their collective wits together to resolve the problem on someone else’s counter. It may not have been a problem at all, but such teamwork I haven’t seen in the companies I’ve worked for in my career life.

Now, either these folks don’t really ‘extend’ miles at all, or they were out of practice. The person who was handling my query today scratched his head a few times, before he could figure out what I really wanted. Then, he input the number multiple times into his system, asked around, wrote it on a scratchpad, wrote it wrong and corrected it 3 times, and finally after 20 minutes of fiddling with his computer, he could figure out what to do. It took him another 10 minutes of building consensus with his colleagues to arrive at the final solution, at which time he passed the baton to the cashier, who was supposed to collect the cash and issue the receipt. I played courier boy between the two, and another 5 minutes later the few ‘expired’ miles I had were added back to my account.

While I knew what I was getting into when I walked into this office, I was still hoping against hope that the airline would have improved for the better. I was wrong. This airline continues to be a relic set in a time warp, and clearly I was making a mistake. And I now hope those miles better be worth it.

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Posted by Ajay Awtaney | 5 Comments

5 Responses to “A visit inside the relics of Air India”

  1. Kumar says:

    I could feel every bit of your experience :) Brought back nostalgia about how things work in public/semi-govt institutions. And also that being patient does provide results.
    I had got my few miles extended for a year from the New York office recently. I had sent them an email and a phone call followed, whereby I was told that I could send in a cheque at the most if I could not visit their office. So a 5 dollar cheque sent by mail did the trick.

  2. Vishal Mehra says:

    One of the major rifts in AI has been the haphazardly done merger with IA during Patel’s tenure. Ajit Singh has done few good things & i sincerely hope he fixes these fissures soon as well. It’s important for maharaja’s revival & i remain optimistic about it

  3. Raj Bhandari says:

    Some of us frequent travelers to India from the US may overlook the Maharaja’s hospitality deficiencies once they seriously join a major alliance and shape up to their standards…

  4. @raj as per air india they are in readiness to join star alliance, but their service sucks and the mileage program sucks as well. So why?

  5. Ted says:

    Call their US customer service number (you can do it for free from Gmail). Any operations that they claim you can only do in the office they will do over the phone if you are outside of India. You just need to insist that you are in fact in the US and they will do whatever it is you need. I’m sure you go to the same call center as the Indian phone number, but if that’s what it takes to get around their stupid rules, that’s what it takes. Hands down the worst customer service I have ever experienced from an Airline.

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