Making middle-class customers go meat-free on domestic flights isn’t going to save Air India

Where’s the chicken?
Where’s the chicken?
Image: Monali.mishra/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0
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It’s getting harder and harder to believe that Air India was once a pioneer of good service in the sky.

From choked toilets to faulty air conditioning, customers flying on India’s national carrier have had a tough time in recent months. But as if that wasn’t enough bad press, the beleaguered, debt-ridden airline recently decided to restrict economy-class passengers on all domestic flights to vegetarian meals, according to media reports. But Air India’s quest to reduce wastage and save around Rs8 crore a year, out of its total catering expense of Rs400 crore, doesn’t affect those passengers who can afford better seats: Meat is now a privilege granted only to those flying in business-class or international flights.

And that could be a huge misstep for a company that has already seen its share of India’s booming airline market dwindle in the face of stiff competition from private players. In 2016, Air India’s share was a paltry 13%, while industry leader IndiGo controlled over 41% of the market. Needless to say, antagonising the average customer isn’t going to be good for business.

Last year, the airline had implemented a policy of not serving non-vegetarian food on 60-90 minute domestic flights, saying that there wasn’t enough time on short-haul journeys for the cabin crew to manage customers with different choices. On July 10, Air India’s chairman and managing director Ashwani Lohani said that the decision to expand this policy across all flights was also designed to avoid mix-ups between vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals, which reportedly upset customers in the past, as well as make the job of flight attendants “simpler.”

But getting rid of meat outright, for middle-class passengers at least, seems to be an extreme solution, particularly given that other low-cost carriers in India continue to serve both vegetarian and non-vegetarian snacks and meals. And most importantly, the move doesn’t do much to solve the airline’s real problem: its crushing mountain of debt worth nearly Rs52,000 crore.

While the Indian government is looking at a number of options to improve the business, including potentially divesting its stake, it’s clearly going to take much more than meat-free meals to make a difference in the scheme of things.

“Given that its debt is a whopping Rs52,000 crore, the sum saved on chicken dinners is hardly likely to turn the company around,” The Indian Express newspaper said in an editorial on July 11. “More importantly, in the competitive commercial airline space, Air India stands to annoy—if not completely alienate—its customers, about 30 per cent of whom opt for non-veg meals.”

And the competition is already taking note.

Feature image by Monali.mishra on Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.