Friday, February 23, 2007

Kingfisher Airlines - Business Class - Puffery in the Skies

Kingfisher Airlines Limited
Kingfisher House,
Western Express Highway. Vile Parle (E)
Mumbai 400057
Tel: 022 2626 2200
Fax: 022 5502 0625

I have not traditionally written airline reviews. There are many reasons for this, but primarily because most US airlines are some version of awful. Jetblue, in my opinion, now stands out in this regard because it is generally both the low cost carrier on any particular route and the service leader. Last week's meltdown in Jetblue's service levels, on account of severe weather, notwithstanding. Until about a decade ago, the same could have been said about airlines in India. Only one domestic carrier, Indian Airlines, dominated the Indian skies. Old planes, sloppy food and poor service dominated the sector. This changed with the advent of Jet Airways. Jet brought new planes, impeccable service, and on-time performance to a country where bad airplane service had been the norm for years.

The advent of Jet Airways in India ushered in a new era of air transport. Jet Airways changed the current landscape in Indian aviation. More recently, with the explosive growth of the Indian middle class and the large class of young and financial empowered Indian, airlines such as Kingfisher, Go Air, Air Deccan, and SpiceJet have ushered a new era of low cost flight options to the Indian skies. Kingfisher, in economy class, is in the middle of the pack for fares but promises to offer passengers a spectacular flight experience. Dr. Vijay Mallya, the flamboyant chairman of the airline and owner of United Breweries, the company that brews and sells Kingfisher beer, a popular Indian ale, invites passengers to fly the "Good Times" aboard his airline. The reference is unmistakably to enjoying his beers and women (he calls his flight attendants "flying models"). The irony is that Indian civil air regulations prohibit the consumption of alcohol on all domestic flights!

I flew Kingfisher quite a few times when it first launched. The planes were brand new, the generally attractive female flight attendants were well dressed in Kingfisher red skirts and jackets, and the service levels were high, both on the ground and in the air. The seats, on the other hand, were lackluster. To keep rates low, Kingfisher crammed in as many rows as it could. The result was a claustrophobic feel when seated. Reclining one's seat meant causing someone behind a shocking loss of personal space.

Kingfisher recently added a large business class cabin, called Kingfirst. Molinaro Koger's Assistant Vice President for India, Pranav R. Bhakta, and I decided to try this new service. We had booked ourselves in economy (Kingfisher Class, as the airline calls it) but paid personally to upgrade our seats. We flew on flight 309 from Mumbai to Delhi . The seats themselves are spacious and there is substantial room between rows (quite rare and nice on a domestic flight). Most business class features except for lie-flat and massage options were available on the chairs. The video display units were seemingly designed by prison inmates who sought to chuckle at the free world's inability to extract the units from storage. The following short review is excerpted from a letter I wrote to Dr. Mallya, the chairman of the airline. The video clip that plays ad nauseam on the airline, shows Dr. Mallya inviting personal comments on service to which he promises personal responses. Ahh, promises... Dr. Mallya's form response to my letter -- sigh -- is also attached.

Kingfisher gets high marks for the space given to their business class guests. Much else remains (food quality, drink selection, maintenance of equipment, attention to detail), however, before it can truly be called a first-rate business class service.


I must admit some disappointment with our experience on Kingfisher. While I do believe that the airline has done a great job with the airline in general, we were especially disappointed by our experiences in your business class cabin. First, neither my nor my traveling companion's video display units worked. We were offered the option to move to other seats. Upon inspection, we found that some other seats had malfunctioning or non-functioning units as well. Not wanting to be bothered with hunting for an operating display and having work to do, I decided not to move.

Our experience with your meal service was not much better. We recently arrived in Mumbai on Austrian Airways business class. While I have never been a huge fan of Western European airlines' meal services, our experiences on Austrian were quite exemplary for food. The food was well prepared, well presented and generally very palatable. While the lack of wine or beer service while in-flight is disappointing here in India, that is not something Kingfisher or any other carrier can do anything about at the moment. My food experiences on Kingfisher early last year -- prior to the launch of your Kingfisher First service -- were generally positive. When we arrived on board for flight 309, neither Pranav nor I had eaten lunch and were quite ready for a meal. I had told Pranav that my food experienced on Kingfisher had been positive and that we could expect decent fare. However, the meals we ordered and received, a salmon preparation as I recall, was thoroughly unappetizing. It arrived as if it had just been taken out of a frozen food container, reheated, then slathered with a red gravy of some sort. It did not taste different than its appearance would dictate.

I had a few other general comments that I won't your time recounting. I did not email you to list a litany of complaints. Again, I fully support the mission of your airline and your vision in effectuating it. Kingfisher has been part of a revolution in Indian air travel, one that promotes and enhances many aspects of life in India, including the hospitality industry of which I am a part. Rather, I thought I would share the experiences of two fairly seasoned travelers. We are perhaps the more demanding air travelers -- but when we are satisfied, we also become brand apostles who talk about our experiences, experiences that others make purchase decisions based upon.

Thank you for taking the time to review my comments. I hope you will take them in the constructive manner in which they were intended.


Dear Abhijeet,

Thank you for your gracious e-mail of 22 February, giving me feedback on your experience of Kingfisher First, when you and your colleague Mr. Bhakta, flew IT 309 from Mumbai to Delhi. I have invited feedback from guests who fly Kingfisher Airlines as I firmly believe that firsthand feedback is the true indicator of the performance of my airline; I therefore appreciate the time and trouble you have taken to send me your inputs and your suggestions.

Abhijeet, I have created Kingfisher First specially for my guests with developed tastes and a desire for the very best in life. I have put in a lot of time and energy to transform an air journey into a superlative flying experience, so that you can enjoy the finest flying experience in the Indian skies. However, I am concerned to learn that your First experience was not all that it could have been and I do regret that you were disappointed.

I also appreciate your suggestions on the areas of our service that need attention.

Please accept my apologies that the video display unit at your seat was inoperative, and you were therefore unable to enjoy this feature of our service. I also note your feedback on the quality of food served on your flight, and regret that we were unable to meet your expectations here as well. We care about the quality of food we serve on our flights, and constantly strive to achieve consistency in this area of our service. We believe that our guests have every right to expect the highest standard of catering at all times; we also pay close attention to what our Guests tell us. I have therefore shared your feedback with our caterers to ensure our guests have a truly gourmet experience when they fly with us.

I agree that consistent levels of service have to be provided to all our guests on Kingfisher First and I apologise that we have been found wanting in this area. I know that there is a need for continuous improvement in the quality of product and service offered at every level, and I welcome your inputs. Please rest assured that I will also put in place the necessary corrective actions to ensure that my guests on Kingfisher First enjoy a truly superlative experience on board as well as on the ground.

Once again, thank you for your good wishes, and for your genuine interest in the success of Kingfisher Airlines. I look forward to welcoming you on board the “Good Times” again.

Cheers !

Dr. Vijay Mallya, MP
Chairman & CEO
Kingfisher Airlines Ltd.,
A UB Group Company

Monday, February 19, 2007

A revised history: Otto Frank and the Dixie Chicks

A friend of mine recently sent me a copy of a New York Times editorial, dated February 13, 2007 entitled "The Courage of Others’ Convictions." (Incidentally, I attended a Dixie Chicks concert with this friend, Ellen Downes, at her request, last year). The editorial discussed how the music industry's Grammy awards to the Dixie Chicks came several years late. I share the editors beliefs that the Dixie Chicks faced an unusually un-American barrage of hatred for exercising their rights to free speech and expression. The industry's award makes me think of another period in our collective history that bears remembering: the Holocaust and the revision of history that followed.

It has always been clear that history is written by the victors. These victors are often those who never had the courage to be leaders, but rather rode waves of convenience and popularity. I was reading a New York Times article about the recent discovery of a file containing Otto Frank's increasingly desperate letters to his American friends trying to get his family out of Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation. Otto Frank, of course, was the father of Anne Frank, whose diary has informed generations of the individual and personal tragedies that formed together to form the tragedy of the Holocaust. The file, owned by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research remained buried in a warehouse in Jersey until a recent clerical error led to its discovery.

In the file, Frank writes to Nathan Straus, the director of the federal housing authority at the time, and a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and son of the co-owner of the Macy’s department store asking for any possible assistance to help his family reach America. If there was anyone in the world who should have been able to help, it would have been someone like Straus. He was, after all, an American, and a well connected one at that. We Americans, of course, are proud to take credit as the victors in WWII. Yet, as Frank's letters painfully demonstrate, Americans were rather complicit in failing to prevent the deaths of so many Jews during that period. Getting into the United States -- because of the State Department's polices at the time -- became a insurmountable hurdle for the people who most needed the lifeline that America might have provided. The State Department regulations changed constantly, often contradicting policies promulgated only days before. It seems clear that all of the obstacles were designed towards stemming the flow of refugees from Europe during that period.

The story, as we all know, did not end well. Near the end of the file, there was a note that “Mrs. Edith Frank died; daughters are still missing.” In the last entry in the file, a letter from a friend of Otto Frank informs that “Otto Frank said he wants to stay in Amsterdam” and no longer wants to come to the United States. Of course, after the war ended, Americans were pronounced the benevolent victors who wiped the scourge of Nazi terror from Europe. No doubt Americans deserved the praise, but the history is not that simple.

The Dixie Chicks have now received delayed recognition of the ordeal they faced after criticizing President Bush and his misguided Iraq war policy. The music industry will surely now claim the courage that the Dixie Chicks displayed for themselves, and perhaps, even belatedly, they should. But, much like Americans after WWII, the story is not a simple one. Had the United States been more open to the plight of European Jews during WWII, our history may in fact have been much different. Perhaps, even, millions of lives saved. Similarly, had the music industry -- and even our country -- been more receptive to dissent during our rush into Iraq, our history may well have been different. The horrors of WWII and the Holocaust are slowly beginning to fade from our collective memories, those from Iraq are now just beginning.

Both Otto Frank and the Dixie Chicks should remind us all that sticking to our principles and values, while seemingly impossible at times, remains the surest way to protect those ideals we cherish the most. Alas, the history that is written is never that simple.

P.S. As I write this, the genocide in Darfur continues. Please consider joining me in making a generous contribution to the effort to save lives there. You can contribute by clicking on the link below. Please consider doing so.