Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Retailers and Jet Airways – Cross Learnings

I had just started flying frequently from Bangalore to Delhi for monthly meetings and the preferred choice those days was Jet Airways (9W). Their on-board service was perhaps the best in class (the only comparison was the erstwhile Indian Airlines) and a few years later, maybe Kingfisher. Even with the popularity of the red-dress stewards with mini-skirts that attracted millions of flyers (forget not those plastic Kingfisher branded earphones), the Corporate Traveller still preferred 9W. There were many reasons for this choice, despite their pricing being 7-9% higher than Kingfisher and almost 1.5 times of Indigo and Spicejet in the later years. 


The Jet Airways – Citibank co-branded Credit Card was a must have on our wallets in the later part of the Millennium. The card provided several intrinsic benefits – including Lounge access at Airports as well as shopping and dining benefits across the country. The 5 Tier membership on Jet Privilege, among India’s largest Loyalty Program was similar to the Snakes & Ladder game, that travellers had to cautiously fly a designated number of flights in a quarter to retain their Membership Tiers. And how can I forget the uncountable “upgrades” I have enjoyed on 9W from Economy to Business to even First Class! 

Move over Kingfisher, which many Corporate Travellers thought were more hype and publicity than 9W which had a very genuine care for travellers. Be it the highly curated gourmet food menu even on Economy Class, Coat hangers for Business Travellers and an overall, relaxed travel experience for toddlers to Senior Citizens, these were a few things that attracted passengers until a few years ago. Around a decade back, 9W acquired Sahara Airlines only to burn out too soon, even as the low-cost airlines were matching or lowering air fares what Sahara offered. And after the merger completed, 9W continued to be a premier airline, some even calling it elitist. It was common to see celebrities, cricketers, reputed Business Leaders and many more socially popular people on board 9W. Even without the selfie melees those days, it was nice interacting with such personalities often on board or at the 9W Lounges. 


As I write this piece, I just finished reading that SBI which is managing the debt ridden airline’s takeover has further tightened the norms for a possible suitor even as travel agent-turned India’s most respected Aviator and business tycoon Mr. Naresh Goyal resigned from the Board recently. I am able to already see similar comparisons between 9W (and to some extent Kingfisher as well) and Modern Retailers, for they both cater to similar consumer segments. I have hardly seen traditional Kirana stores go out of business, save for financial mismanagement or not keeping in tune with changing times. In some cases, the next-gen of these Kiranas despise to take over the business calling them traditional, boring and uninteresting. 

But we have seen the meteoric rise and abysmal fall of so many Retailers, Shopping Centres and Malls. If we see what’s in common with those who downed shutters or ones that don’t have the grease to keep them up – it’s all about financial prudence, business stability and focussing on the core. For example, 9W lowered its fare over time to compete with the likes of cost-efficient airlines like Go Air. Being an International Airline and also having a Government norm to fly to far off destinations including Tier 2 towns, the airline was making losses for every nautical mile it flew in some cases. Sounds similar to many of our Retailers selling at cost or lower, a few or more SKUs which they call “Loss Leaders” and what is expected to drive footfalls who will eventually end up buying high-margin products. How I wish this dream was fulfilled. 


Most recently, 9W removed complimentary meals on board for the first time in it’s illustrious history which made even the most hopeless 9W Fan and Corporate Traveller to start whining, writing a fitting Obit for the airline on social media. Instead of upping its value proposition, the airline took to removing services, akin to how Retailers cut down support staff or reduce/switch off air-conditioning in the Retail Stores and Malls to reduce operating costs. In-flight Retail, which is a proven big-billion business worldwide remains largely untapped as well.  All is not over for 9W, yet. I am quite confident that the airline will find a new suitor who will continue and also improve the brand’s legacy with passenger growth touching double digits the last few years. Also, the Government wouldn’t let another airline fail, for it impacts the image of the country at large. However, Retailers may not be that lucky. A private Retail Company is not of national importance, yet – the way Americans eulogised Walmart & Starbucks. We see store openings and closures commonly these days. Ask me about E-Commerce players losing money for every transaction – from selling mobile phones to a portion of Roti or Dosa – well, they all hope that consumers will get used to convenience. Well. 

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Desi, Videsi or Woh!

I started my 30-hour 2 Credit Retail Management Elective Course at BIM – Trichy for the 40-odd sophomores who are completing their 2-Year MBA shortly. On my first session last Thursday, I was having exactly the same nervousness addressing students as was on my first session I took 15 years back at a B-School in Bangalore which was more of a one-off Guest Lecture. As with all the time, a few students asked me in the plenary session about the potential threat of Organised Indian players towards the 12 million+ Kiranas (Mom & Pop run) retail stores in India. And how the International Retailers and the fastest growing segment run by E-Commerce Retailers (despite their humongous losses) will fare in this game. 


Like in my past lectures, I invoked the story of David & Goliath and asked who really is the Goliath which elicited mixed responses. In my humble opinion, the Kiranas and small and marginal Retailers are the Goliath up and against the modern retailers. Their collective opinion-making (and vote bank) has found the flavour of the Politicians and ever since the starting of this Millennium when International Retailers heading India-wards, there has been growing unrest over Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Retail. The decade long UPA Government kept assuring to the small Retailers that their interests would not be compromised and the just about to conclude BJP Government has also ensured policy policing for the five years although by balancing the two power centres. While FDI in single-brand retail is allowed up to 100%, FDI in multi-brand Retail is controlled with a majority ownership by an Indian entity and no FDI in E-commerce at all, except for marketplaces. 

A growing economy like India needs FDI in many Industries and Retail is not an exception. While we keep telling ourselves that India is unique and that Indian consumers have a completely different attitude towards shopping, there is much to learn from International players, from the West, East and everywhere else in between. Having spent the last 22 years in Organised Retail, having grown with the Industry and with a notable and rich experience at Leadership levels at some of India’s home-grown top Retailers, I can say with confidence that no one is going to take away the opportunity and market share of the Kiranas. 


Metro AG, among the world’s largest Retailers and from Germany stepped in to India in 2002. The Retailer made profits in India recently after a presence of over 15 years and has assured a long term game plan for the Indian entity, which doesn’t sell to end-users rather only to Traders, Shopkeepers, Kiranas and anyone who prefers to buy in bulk. The coveted Retailer was recently called upon by DPIIT to work on a model that would help the unorganised to get organised, calling for a paper which could propose better fortunes for the marginalised retailers who mostly lack technology support for billing, reordering and consumer connect. Quite similarly, Wal-Mart which entered India in 2008 has been building large warehouse-styled Retail stores where it sells directly to Kiranas, similar to Metro. Walmart India provides a lot of information and support such as a native seller-marketplace for the Kiranas to reach their Customers, Sales associates who visit the Retailers with a Tab to get their instant orders and also arranges for delivery where possible. 

Reliance SMART (now being renamed MART) has done a similar thing while what it does differently is that it also opens its doors to end-consumers for shopping, a rule in the law book which allows home grown Retailers to do so. Being Indian companies, Reliance, D’Mart and even the Future Group have the opportunity to sell to Resellers and have created independent business units to cater to this need. The FMCG business of the Future Group is now the largest contributor across many categories at the Big Bazaar stores. Online players like UDAAN have created an e-commerce platform where small Kiranas can order products on the App which then gets supplied by wholesalers from across the India to the local store, perhaps even 1,000s of kilometres away. UDAAN connects the two and makes a small profit in the process, a much laudable initiative indeed.


So, are the Kiranas at an undue disadvantage despite all these advancements, provisions and support by Organised Retailers? Perhaps not. There’s a lot more work to be done to support the smaller retailers, beyond business interest. Ultimately, the SME Retailers are consumers for many other categories, so when they prosper, the economy also does. And Retailers increase their pie.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Travel Retail at Regional Airports

I am seated at Madurai Airport and my Spicejet to Chennai is delayed by 55 mins. It’s a swanking new terminal built a few years ago when the local heavyweight MK Alagiri, (eldest son of Late M. Karunanidhi, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu) was an MP in the UPA Cabinet. Being his hometown, he pushed for this infrastructure development a decade back when the DMK was a key ally of the UPA led Congress Government between 2004 - 14. That was when Bangalore & Hyderabad came up with new greenfield airports while Mumbai and Delhi had a massive makeover – all four now being run by private partners. While the UPA Government selectively upgraded regional airports, the present Modi Government led by BJP along with NDA allies has given a further push to unlock aviation opportunities at over 40 unused airports under the ambitions UDAN – Udega Desh ka Aam Nagrik (Common man will fly). 


The Prime Minister inaugurated the Gangtok Airport recently, unveiling a host of opportunities for tourism to the Eastern hill state of Sikkim (although excessive tourism is a bane for ecology, but I will save this for another article) along with numerous airports across India taking the tally of operational airports in India to 100. A further 50 airports are yet to take off even as many airlines have wound up operations at some of these airports due to various reasons – poor patronage by passengers cited to be the most favoured response even as I reckon that it is due to careless Business management by these operators who took up routes which they knew were unviable and continued to bleed operationally without building parallel commercial opportunities other than not marketing the cost of time to the locals to fly, rather than take up a rail or bus journey. Truejet has ceased operations to Salem while Air Deccan (yes, they were resurrected by Captain Gopinath) ceased operations in the East. And many such examples.  


I had to rush to Madurai on an urgent personal work and took a day trip by Air. After my work was over, I reached the Airport four hours in advance since I had a 2-hour Video Conference with a Client. I was dreading the thought of being seated in those most uncomfortable standard airport-seating. But to my own surprise, there was an oasis – a Lounge before Security hold area. It was prohibitively expensive for Rs. 900 per pax with unlimited time one can spend plus some food and snacks on the house. They wouldn’t accept Mastercard or Visa’s Complementary Lounge options either. But my call was more important, so I chose to pay and use. Didn’t realise how I spent the three-hour period at this well maintained Lounge with polite and courteous staff. Thankfully, I was the sole occupant all along so had the entire 20 seater Lounge for myself.


Took my boarding pass from the Kiosk and walked around and upstairs to be greeted by unexcited staff who were clueless why their “shops” existed what with not a single passenger glancing inside. I noticed local delicacies – Halwa and Milk Khova from neighbouring Tirunelveli and Srivilliputhur respectively. Once inside the waiting area, there were the usual food Kiosks savouring watery coffee, dip tea and oily snacks with sugary bakery stuff. Absolute gold mine of an opportunity to cater to the 3,000 plus passengers who fly off daily from the domestic terminals. Being sensitive Tier 2 cities like Madurai, it would make sense to engage passengers with affordable F&B and Retail options. Perhaps a Levis or Nike may not work, but Indian brands with a regional appeal could do well. 

Tourism development in India is usually seen as an activity to be undertaken by a particular Department of the Government. Worldwide, I have seen a cohesive collaboration between the Public and Governmental agencies to promote tourism – from Singapore to Switzerland, Bangkok to Berlin. It’s only in India that we compartmentalise the potential opportunities. There wasn’t a single poster or a visual that speaks about Enchanting Tamil Nadu which is the spiritual and cultural capital of India. At the Departure hold, passengers and visitors are already travelling back, so instead of promoting the city, why not promote the State? We would sell more Coffee, Tea & much more at neighbouring airports too!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Rail Retail – The next big thing?

Among the few exciting assignments that I have worked all my life, one of the most interesting ones was setting up commercial opportunities at the first greenfield private airport in India at Bangalore in 2006. I was among the first few to join BIAL, the company which was helmed by Zurich Airport along with L&T and Siemens as Private Partners and the Union Government of India & Government of Karnataka providing the necessary statutory support. I was solely responsible for conceptualising, designing, leasing and later managing the Retail areas at the Airport which included Duty Free Retailing in the International Departures & Arrivals, Domestic Retail in all other areas, F&B outlets including Cafes, Restaurants, Pubs and ForEx outlets keeping in mind the convenience of passengers as well as increasing the non-Aero revenues for the airport company. What was then (in 2006) – Travel Retail, a national industry of Rs. 300 Crores pa is now over Rs. 3,000 Crores, thanks to upgraded Airport Terminals at Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Kochi over the past decade. 


I have been an avid traveller all my life and after flying two times a week, forty times a year for a decade in work, I took to rail travel over the past half-decade ever since I turned an Entrepreneur due my business interests largely being achievable by train and more so saving travel time (during night) as well lower cost of travel and transportation, save the cost of F&B at Airports. I just got in to yet another Shatabdi trip and I ain’t surprised I know by platform number already and a clear plan of what to munch when I arrive at Bangalore as well, at the Adigas outlet where the train would drop me. Similarly, the F&B outlets at various stations are familiar to regular passengers like me and those who plan their travel around food & snacks (your’s truly included) know how early to reach the station for the last grub or drink before boarding. 


Shatabdi has been a revolutionary product (sounds like a software product from Infosys or ICICI, hic!) from Indian Railways and with faster drive time as well as complimentary meal on board. What used to be an exciting array of food items before is now a simple breakfast and a simpler meal with a beverage or two in between. The not so great thing is that there is no possibility for passengers to purchase food items even if they wish to do so. Sounds familiar to the scenario a decade and half back when low cost carriers like Air Deccan started off leaving passengers stranded ob=n board with no possibility of even buying water or snacks. Last week, I was traveling in the much touted and recently inaugurated Tejas Express from Chennai to Madurai which was inaugurated by none other than the man of the moment, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi.The train covers a distance of over 450 kms in 6.5 hours compared to other trains which take 90 mins more than this. With traffic on rails (yeah, more trains you see) having grown manifold over the years, it’s an awesome feat by Indian Railways that they have managed to cover this distance in the said duration. While the train has several exciting features such as an access controlled door, CCTv cameras and personalised entertainment, the F&B scenario is the same as a Shatabdi. 


The Railways could help themselves by offering “Travel Retail” on board akin to the Airlines which not only opens up an array of incremental income to the agency but also provide passengers a break from monotony in travelling seated all day (or evening). Way back in 2010 when I was responsible for setting up new cafes for Café Coffee Day, India’s largest coffee chain with over 1,600 outlets today, I charted a plan to set-up a mini-café on board Rajdhani and Shatabdi Trains. The proposal was to have a portion of the pantry car culled in to a café – a café on the move with outstanding visuals even as the train cruises at 90-110 kms between cities. The proposal was rejected by the then Head of IRCTC, the agency which was and is responsible for the commercialisation of the Railway network for reasons best known to him. Even as I was walking up to my train this morning, I saw this tuck shop selling Railway merchandise and once again I am intrigued by the immense possibilities and opportunities that beckon in Travel Retail at Railways. With the elections ahead, I don’t see any new initiatives until June 2019 but am hoping the new Ministry would take this up more seriously. For the love of travelling. 


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sleep Matters


It’s been an eternal debate if it makes sense to fly business class or first class while the seats in the Economy Class also take us to the same destination. The arguments in favour and against this topic have been featured in various magazines, articles and even International symposiums and Travel Seminars worldwide, some of which I have personally attended. 

I have had so many memorable trips within India and outside. The first stamping on my passport was a Swiss Visa when I joined BIAL in 2006. I was sent for a study tour and orientation of Zurich Airport towards Travel Retail which was also one of the shareholders of BIAL, India’s first private airport built on a PPP model. Between 2006 – 2009, I travelled 10 countries including China, speaking about Indian Aviation at Conferences in Singapore & Malaysia. My most memorable trip has been the one on Singapore Airlines in 2007 on First Class, up and down for one of those Travel Retail Conferences where I was representing Indian Aviation and presented the masterplan for BIAL. Since then, I have taken hundreds of flights and especially between 2009 – 2014, I would travel 3 days a week, over 40 times a year and would live out of my Samsonite. Almost.


Ever since becoming an Entrepreneur in 2014, I started embracing Train Travel for two reasons; obviously it saves a lot of money (and associated pangs such as taxi fares, exorbitant coffee & food costs, etc). But most importantly, I started valuing my health and time. My retail venture Smiling Baby had its first Franchise store in Coimbatore, some 500 kms south west of Chennai; a few of my clients in my consulting business “Miles2Go Advisory Services” were located across various parts of Tamil Nadu such as Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Trichy, Salem, etc. And of course, on and off trips to Bangalore as well, mostly on work. I still travel by a flight when required – but my travel plans are clear; all journeys under 500 kms (typically overnight) would be by rail and all travel upwards of 500 kms would be on a flight. Been at it for a few years now and trust me, it’s worked so well.

Now that my preferred mode is chosen, I have experimented with the options and succeeded too; For all trips on business by Air, I have started opting for the first row or middle rows for an additional fee, thanks to my height at 6’2”. And I prefer seat “D” than any other; here’s why. When I am seated on Seat D, I get elbow space which is unhindered, so I can type on my MacBook – such as this article which I have written while flying Delhi to Mumbai one late evening; No other seat allows flawless movement of right elbow than this seat. Also, an extended legroom means I get more comfort while on the flight as well as when I land – which is paramount to having an efficient workday as well as to get some good sleep in the night. As much as I bemoan the atrocious additional charges of carriers, I still think God has been kind to me to take up these small mercies – after all, it’s me who benefits more than anyone else using these preferred seats once I land. The complimentary meal along with the additional cost means I get more time (mostly on ground before departure) so I wrap up as much as I can, including calls or responding to messages and short reply-emails.


Similarly, I avoid all flights that land after 9pm – most Indian airports have International movements in the nights and the ATC would give preference for landing & parking (near the Terminal Building) to them than the Domestic ones. So, when a domestic flight gets a remote parking bay – one which is far off, it takes double the time or more to even arrive at the Baggage area and then the subsequent processes of baggage retrieval, boarding a taxi, etc. While on Trains, I have become a big fan of 1st A/c with just 4 berths; one there is that much less noise level; two, there are no side berths which again impact my sleep and the productivity next day. This, again is based on experiences travelling with 8 persons in a single bay (3rd A/c), or getting a raw deal of a side berth even after paying a 2nd a/c fare. Oh, so my car drives on work or pleasure – that’s for another post. 


For me, the journey is always as important as the destination. If the journey is not a happy one, the destination will not be charming, no matter where it is. Life is similar too, And I have Miles to Go…

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Coffee Matters (Noun & Verb)


My former Boss at BIAL, Mr. Stephan Widrig, the then Chief Commercial Officer blocked his calendar and sent me a meeting request with the Title - “Coffee with Shriram”. I was stunned and confused at the same time. I was awaiting to have my annual performance review around that time with him and instead he sends me this. Most Indian employees (excuse my bias, please) are used to sitting nervously in front of their bosses during such sessions, with sweat falling profusely and continuously for the entire duration, what with the Boss is going to gag the employee with their non-performance of metrics and expectations. But this session turned out to be different. 

Stephan had done his homework (as always) and had just a single page with pencil notes on it. He invited me warmly to his cabin and we had a 45 minute discussion on what I have contributed to that particular FY as well as the 2 years I had spent with the company which was involved in setting up the first private Greenfield Airport in India. I was more critical about my performance than him, frankly. But he calmed me down often and suggested never to be so difficult on myself. The review went well and I came out with flying colours (as cliched as it sounds) and a hefty increment + bonus, but most importantly I walked out with so much satisfaction of working for such a person!


A recent study by John Bargh of Yale University suggests that a Coffee Meeting with the Boss can do wonders and this article is the reason for my outpour of my fondest professional memories.The study suggests that the “coffee meeting” can also work wonders when one is pitching new projects to Clients, raising an Investment or even discussing with Suppliers and Business Partners.

“What we found was that there was a significant difference between the two groups, such that participants who held the hot coffee cup saw person A as being more generous, more sociable.”

It’s common to see Starbucks and CCD outlets across India (and perhaps elsewhere in the world) filled with people engaged in discussions - as we reckon from the Food Retail Industry, cafes are the most preferred third choice of location for most of us after Home and Workplace. I am told Pubs are a great place to pitch Angel Investors by Startups in the West - and we have seen and heard enough stories how many Unicorns who raised their first round of funding over beer. Back in India, alcohol is still taboo - at least in most business occasions (well, Delhi and Mumbai could still be exceptions). Even some of the largest Indian corporations and business houses do not hold official Dinners with alcohol, thanks to an inherent cultural mindset. So cafes are the “go-to” places.

I recall when I was a student 2.5 decades back, the cafe culture was still setting in. Chennai had “Hot Breads” even before Cafe Coffee Day came up and there were similar such smaller joints where young couples would turn up for a “coffee date”. Even a conservative city like Kolkata had it’s brush with “Coffee Pai”, a speciality cafe with wonderful desserts and coffee to go with run by my friend Naveen back in the millennium year. Over the years, the cafe and coffee culture has outgrown with every important road across the top 30 cities in India doting a regional, national or International coffee shops. Such is the power of Coffee.


On the same note, a number of Tea joints have also sprung up in India over the past decade, with some having raised millions of US Dollars in Investment. My favourite in Chennai is “Chai Kings” which serves a wide variety of speciality Tea and have upgraded their outlets with a swanky indoor, with the recent one opened at Ramanujam Tech Park in Chennai. However, the value proposition for Coffee over Tea (Price being a differentiator) is way too high and hence Coffee chains can afford to charge much higher than Traditional Indian Tea. 

As the Indian spring begins this January, do plan a coffee meeting soon with someone important in your career and life - from an Ex-Colleague to your current Boss, long lost friends or your spouse. And remember to go for a Warm Coffee than a cold one. You will feel the difference, trust me. And write to me, if it did make a difference. Cheers.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Notes of a Frequent flyer



The biggest technology revolution Indian’s have encountered in the past 5 decades is the advent of the internet for daily use. From ordering Vegetables & Grocery, booking Travel tickets for Air, Train, Bus and Taxi rides on Ola & Uber and not to mention the flirtatious relationship we enjoy with Amazon, Flipkart, Snapdeal and others – India is the only country in the world which has the highest percentage of “Cash on Delivery” model – a method we have invented where the delivery boy collects cash after delivering the parcel from an E-Commerce company… be it mobile phones or an acrylic accessory which hides the back (and sometimes even the front of the Rs. 50,000 (about $700) worthy iPhone XR) or a simple Pizza that is delivered from the neighbourhood Pizza Hut. 

And this is where the first nightmare begins for the frequent Indian Traveler like me. Even as a harried (and hurried) passenger books his/her cab through a cab-hailing App such as the Wall St. funded Uber or the Indian discovery (and Japanese funded) Ola say around 4 am, the traveler realises she is low on Digital Money for paying the cabbie. So, she adds up a sizeable amount in to their wallet from a bank account or credit card and the transactions fails at the first instance. Why did it fail? While we have the highest number of mobile connections in the World, the number of towers is quite disproportionate to the usage. Isn’t there something called Broadband? Oh yes, we do, in fact India’s broadband rates are among the lowest in the world. Recently, our Honourable Prime Minister quipped at a Conference in Japan that India’s internet rates are lower than a cup of Coffee. Well, if he says so. But the internet is patchy most of the times and the promise of 100mbps speed by the Operator is applicable only when a single device is used – but a typical Indian household would have two mobile connections for the gent and the lady each, one each for their parents & kids, a couple of other devices such as iPads, Alexa and a Smart Tv and last but not the least, the live-in maid and the household’s car driver also are allowed to use the home Wifi because of the unlimited usage options offered by the Telecom providers.


And finally, the traveler completes her wallet transaction only to find that the cab prices have surged meanwhile due to peak demand - well, the Top 7 Airports in India including at Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Kochi (in that order) which contribute to over 70% of India’s total air traffic have their peak capacity between 5am – 8am. So, finally she accepts a surged fare and curses how the Cab Companies funded by the Japanese, Chinese and American Investors have spoiled the market with freebies during off-peak hours and apply surge pricing which take away the incentives of using the App. The Cabbies in India, especially those who have joined the likes of Ola and Uber (and also food-hailing Apps such as Zomato, Swiggy & Uber Eats) have a new-found love for GPS – especially when it comes to delivering food or showing up a Taxi at the client’s place. India’s GPS is, well not so great obviously because 8 out of 10 times, these App users end up at the nearby street and call the user and sometimes even insist that the Customers come over there – either to board the cab or to collect their beloved Rotis and Pizzas. 

While the call happens between the Traveler and the Cabbie, one must be very cautious about the mood of the driver – so depending on their convenience, the user must agree to pay by wallet or cash. So, typically from around the 20th of the month, the cabbies reject trips which have a wallet payment since they need working capital and the Cab companies (despite funded in Billions of dollars) do not settle their payments on time. So, when a traveler says she is going to pay by Wallet, there is a high chance that the trip gets cancelled only to get allotted to another driver. By a stroke of luck, one could get the next cab arriving in 3 mins or 10 mins. Again, the cabbie who’s nearby would most probably prefer a cash payment and if the traveler refuses, the process repeats. This is a pattern, in fact. With most flights not allowing Free Cancellation or postponement, the traveler usually prefers not to cancel the next cab, because time is more precious than money. So, she finally settles for a cab with the payment option preferred by the Cabbie and heads to one of the Architectural wonders and marvels of the country – the multi-billion dollar funded “City Airport”.


It has always kept me wondering but hell yeah, why do almost all Airports in India except at Bangalore have only 3-4 entry gates when the influx of passengers during the morning and evening peaks are an estimated 20,000 – 30,000 spread over 3-4 hours? CISF – the National Agency entrusted with the protection of Airports among other prestigious Infrastructure projects are always in a situation where the supply is lower than demand. So, the waiting queue to simply enter the Airport Terminal could take between 5-12 mins on an average, depending on how quick the CISF guard is willing to skim through the paper (or digital ticket) and match it with the 5 acceptable identity Proof documents. Now, most of these identity docs for us in the late 30s, 40s and 50s who form the frequent traveler base, were perhaps made about a decade or two earlier, so the hardcopy doesn’t match the image with the  real one, despite the L’oreals and Gillette grooming accessories which Indians are embracing like no other. So, there is a 50% chance that the CISF guard takes a third look and compares the two images giving competition to the advanced AI techniques being practiced in many other developed countries. He gives a stern and final nod and allows the passenger to get inside the terminal. Oh, btw visitors are not allowed inside Terminal buildings in India. What started as a threat perception after 9/11 and 2008 London attacks has become a convenience excuse, thanks to the crumbling infrastructure in the public areas of the Terminal. So works well for the Airport Operator and the CISF indeed. 


All the four Private Airports have an excellent check-in process with kiosks that help travellers to skip the queue. However, most Frequent Traveler check-in before arriving to the Airport, which means the baggage Drop Queues are more crowded than those which have pax who haven’t checked-in. What an irony this is! Another 15 minutes later, the pax heads to the Infamous Indian Security Check. A decade back less than 8% of all air pax were women, but not the case today. The split is at least 80:20 today especially with more women travelling on work and leisure. Although the Frisking Queue for women is just one, perhaps two. Men have to wait endlessly and finally get their “trays” where they unload their offering from their laptop bags, backpacks and other fancy bags. It’s interesting to note what all a man carries - from multiple chargers to power banks, iPad, laptops (some carry coveted MacBooks as well), two mobile phones on an average and some even carry reams of papers (somewhat work related, although I wonder who keeps paper records anymore). The best part is how Men stand at the Security Frisking area - with hands raised and legs spread. It could be gory to hilarious to a security threat to the guards themselves with some pax standing as though they would pounce on the guards! Meanwhile, there is another senior guard who’s carefully skimming the Tv screens of the X-ray machines. 4 out of 10 bags (random average, but yeah) are identified for a total display of all the internal compartments of the bags even as the pax who is already late is sulking to get to the gate. 



Once at the Gate, a few pax try to board a flight which is for a different destination and realise it only when the staff at the Boarding Gate send them back saying they are still boarding pax for the previous flight. Many Indian Airports still have bus gates, mostly more of them than aerobridges, purely due to infrastructure costs as well as availability of remote parking bays. So, the pax now gets to a level below and waits to board the bus and finally reaches the aircraft. Once inside the craft, there is a wrestle for multiple rights; first comes the right to stowage - who gets to keep more and how close to where they are seated. Then comes the eternal right for arm space. Seasoned travelers like me always, almost always prefer an aisle row and seat number “C” so I get one arm space for granted and also I get to do some elbow space, such as writing articles like these. Last comes the right to alight - who gets out of the craft faster as though this will ensure who will get out of the airport itself. Because the bus ride to the terminal building is a sort of sight-seeing to showcase the marvellous infrastructure that the Government or the Private Operators have invested. While waiting for the baggage, one would wonder what was the topic the unloading guys must be discussing today - from Trump’s intentions on curbing sanctions to the latest celebrity gossip and more which eventually decides how soon (or late) your bag would arrive. After spending over 200-300 mins or more at two Airports, the passenger finally leaves the Terminal Building back to civilisation which looks very different altogether. 

On the way back to a catch a flight home, the frequent flyer heads to the Lounge and flashers his Mastercard or a Privilege Pass to get seated in a cushioned leather sofa and catch up on the latest cricket score. Some of them order a drink only to be forewarned by the waiter that they need to pay for this while the food is complimentary. After gulping one or two depending on how soon or later their flight would depart, the passenger continues to enjoy the hospitality while somewhere thanking the guy who took his application form for a Credit Card many moons back, so he gets this privilege. Those who aren’t blessed with such an offering loiter along the endless pathways which have numerous shopping and dining opportunities. From the latest Hidesign leather bags to Designer Neck Ties, from local delicacies like Sambar Vada to customised Pastas and Sushis, one could get almost everything inside an Airport that a typical restaurant serves in the top cities of India. It’s so heartening to see Travel Retail has come of age so much at Indian Airports over the years that many passengers prefer to shop here than in the city stores, thanks to deals on books and electronics as well as the personal space and staff attention they receive.


Having said that, most Airport Retail Stores, in my humble opinion aren’t investing even 25% interest or effort to cash in on the impending opportunities. Talk about CRM or customisation, Data Science or Business Intelligence, there is so much more to do. The staff are busy fiddling their mobile phones most of the times and even when the Customers (pax, in this case) show interest on products, they react very minimally. Of course there are a few exclusions and some of the staff do get interested in a dialogue with customers but frankly thats mutual. I have personally shopped quite a lot at the Airport stores. To show them that by building meaningful conversations with customers, one can actually “encourage customers to buy” than merely trying to “sell” a product or force them to “buy”. At Restaurants, food courts and Kiosks, the staff are more functional than vending machines with eye contacts hardly present or pitching to up-sell a thing or two. 


Even as the Frequent Flyer is on her / his way back home, the same process as in the morning repeats until finally one has taken the taxi back home. TSome of us start catching up sleep in the taxi and when we hit the sack, it’s close to midnight - most of us have been taught in our early days of professional employments to travel “first flight out, last flight in” and thus utilise the working day the most. Habits stay on.