03 March 2008

a plane to nowhere

I found this article in The Age interesting
Indians queueing for their first flight
March 2, 2008

Bewitched by air travel, Indians are queueing for their first flight - on a plane that never even leaves the ground.

Teenager Josman T. Jose fastens her seatbelt, listens to the pilot's instructions, is served lunch by an air hostess and two hours later jumps out the emergency door of an airbus.

It is the first time the schoolgirl has seen an aircraft from inside and her excitement is palpable, even though the jet is in fact a decommissioned plane parked on a plot of land near New Delhi's domestic airport.

"It's a great experience and will be very useful when I fly in future," Josman says of her time on the plane, which every week draws scores of schoolchildren and curious onlookers who have never seen a plane up close.

Of the 55 schoolgirls who took a "flight", only three had flown before, despite a boom in air travel.

Industry experts say nearly 100 million Indians are likely to travel by plane this year - compared with fewer than 50 million in 2003-04 - but still only a small percentage of the country's population of 1.1 billion.

"Most people in India have not seen an aircraft," the plane's owner Bahadur Chand Gupta, a retired aircraft engineer, said.

"I have been flooded with requests. I was the first aircraft engineer in my village. Back in 1980, I was treated as if I were the prime minister by the village folks who all wanted to see a plane."

His company, Aeroplanet, now provides an on-the-ground in-flight experience to those who cannot afford to fly. His office staff double up as cabin crew, serving snacks and helping customers put on their oxygen masks, while the former engineer tells his audience about air pressure and aircraft speed.

"It's very informative," passenger Tanya Malhotra, 14, says.

Mr Gupta, now an entrepreneur, bought the old plane from an insurance company in 2003, rebuilt it and it now sits in a Delhi suburb where people pay 150 rupees ($4) per "trip" so they can experience what it must be like to fly.

There are six crew members on the plane, which is missing a wing and a chunk of the tail. Mr Gupta plays the role of captain, while his wife serves drinks and trays of airline food to the passengers alongside the other stewardesses.

Mr Gupta's wife, Dr Nirmal Jindal, teaches political science at university in her "other job". She says the experience is also about showing people how flying is done.

"We want to orient them about aviation manners," she told Time magazine. "People have money but they do not know how to behave. We want to acquaint them with the cost of a plane, the safety aspects, how to treat the hostesses."

As the passengers listen to Mr Gupta's announcements regarding turbulence and the descent into Delhi, the fact the bathrooms are out of order, the air-conditioning is powered by a generator and they are still seeing the same view out of the window does not faze them a bit.

While a small percentage of Indians have experienced plane travel for real, Mr Gupta's virtual flight, which includes a safety demonstration, has a huge impact on his employees and customers.

After he bought the plane, he cut it up into four pieces to make transportation easier. Two pieces of the hulk were joined, engine and expensive instruments removed, a smaller wing attached, and the original front landing gear replaced by a cement structure.

"This is what we call an assembling job, Indian-style," he says, beaming. "Nowhere in the world will you find something like this."

The engine and other equipment are now housed at another facility, where Mr Gupta runs an aviation school for aspiring pilots and aircraft engineers.

"I even put together the emergency slide for $100 only. It would take several thousand dollars to buy a new one."

He launched the business three years ago after a deluge of requests by passers-by to board the aircraft.

Now he entertains schoolchildren three times a week, offering the facility free to charities that want to bring along poor children.

Weekend rides are also free for those who cannot afford to pay. Magic shows and dancers are thrown in as entertainment for larger bookings.

"The guard has instructions to let anyone who wants to have a look come in," he says.

"I can understand because I come from a small village myself."

Regardless of status, background or job, all visitors go through typical boarding procedures.

Passengers check in, get boarding passes and climb a staircase to enter.

One student asked if there was a horn to tell other planes to get out of the way in traffic, a magazine reported.

Mr Gupta says he and his crew are catering to people's dreams.

"We are fulfilling life wishes," he says. "We want people to have a good time, to inspire them, so that kids see that if they study hard they might become a pilot."

In the end, however, it's the dreams that bring most passengers. The airbus is "beautiful to sit in", one mother, who took time out from her domestic duties, says.

"When we have more money, then we'll go on a real plane."

AFP, Reuters
The story was originally covered by SBS (television) on 20 February. Click on the link to watch the video and/or read the transcript.

Most of us take air travel for granted, but it is still a dream for many of the world's people. As for "aviation manners", some passengers should pass a course before they are allowed to fly in an aircraft.

I spent most of today with Kane, returning home after a morning at work. Despite the sad circumstances, it was great to meet the rest of his human family.

I telephoned Sue I (not Sue B or Sue D) tonight and we had not caught up for a long time. I was sorry to hear that her Golden Retriever Belle passed away a few weeks ago. I never managed to meet Belle. It is always too late. It is worth phoning friends regularly and often.

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