Opening doors in mid-air: how India’s travel culture took to the skies

A nation famous for its trains is witnessing a boom in air travel – but the rules of flight etiquette are distinctly different. 

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Recently, a man was arrested on a flight in India for trying to open the rear door of an aircraft mid-flight. There’s an understandable fear around any out-of-the-ordinary behaviour on flights, but it turned out the man was in search of the loo and the cops didn’t need to get involved. This was simply the first flight he’d ever taken. 

Such on-flight disruptions aren’t uncommon in India, where air traffic has doubled in six years, and the number of domestic air passengers is now above 100 million. A politician put on a no-fly list after slapping a member of the flight crew (he had demanded a business class seat on an all-economy plane). A passenger thrown off a flight after complaining about mosquitoes (he was lucky not to be on the flight with bedbugs, or rats). The man who tried to enter the cockpit to charge his phone. Airline staff accused of blasting passengers with cold air to force them to disembark into the heavy rain. Footage of a man apparently being beaten up on the tarmac. An airline responding to complaints about groping by creating women-only rows of seats. A prankster claiming a plane had been hijacked. Reports of planes dumping human waste on people's homes.

With more passengers comes more stories, of course, but if you’ve ever travelled with the Indian masses on a train, you’ll see why Indian train culture gets lost in translation when transferred from railway to runway. The former is the most popular mode of transport in India, and in my opinion one of the most Indian things about my homeland. According to a government report published in March 2017, about 8.5 billion passenger journeys are made using the train network each year.

I live in London now, and have learnt not to talk to people on the tube – thank you very much. But every time I go back to India I make it a point to join those 8.5 billion, and make at least one long-distance train journey to remind myself of the idiosyncrasies of the culture I come from.

The Indian rail network may have been built during the British Empire, but after a century and a half of existence, the subcontinent has had plenty of time to shape its train culture. Seats, unless you’re traveling first class, are more like benches. They are supposed to seat three, but without a clear demarcation of where one seat begins and the other one ends, three is just a suggestion. It could mean two large (manspreading) men, five kids or one older lady if she needs to be lying down. People come in a number of different configurations. Seats don’t.

Furthermore, just because you have been assigned a seat doesn’t mean you will sit in it. Where you end up sitting or how much space you get for yourself depends on how you negotiate with your fellow travellers. Resilience, and girth, often wins. Yet there’s a certain kindness in this way of doing things, in my opinion, an acceptance (sometimes begrudging) that each traveller has a different set of needs. 

One of the many joys of Indian train travel is the food, mostly delicious fried snacks, sold on long journeys. These are brought around either by the official railway food service or by local vendors who hop on at stations with samosas, idlisvadas and the like (with regional variations, of course). Prices are almost never predetermined, and each purchase is preceded by some haggling either to reduce the price or increase the volume/number of whatever is being bought. This isn’t seen as an inconvenience but an opportunity to humour a chinwag or kill time. Being able to get a good deal is a matter of great pride. Ask my mum, she’s never bought a samosa without trying to get extra chutney for free.

Today, a lot of this train traveling population has begun to fly. But despite the colourful stories, I wonder if the things I relish about Indian train culture will survive in the sterile world of the skies. 

Rather than being able to negotiate seat space depending on how much you need, you must sit down in an assigned spot for a long passage of time with a belt strapping you down. Rather than buying food and drink of your choice at a negotiated price, that you can eat with your fingers in the usual Indian way, you are served a fixed-portion microwave meal you have to eat with a flimsy knife and fork. Rather than being able to negotiate a space with dignity, overweight fliers must expect to be charged extra. As for that hapless first-time flyer, well, the concept of closed doors is a bit alien on Indian trains; the open doorways are where those who couldn’t negotiate sitting space hang out. The system works. 

Developing a flying culture in India will take time. Attempts are being made to rush this along, like with Air Asia developing a new etiquette video for first-time flyers; a useful exercise if we are to avoid delayed flights and unnecessary arrests. Perhaps the initiative could be exported for lads on stag-dos here in the UK. Getting a whole flight load of people to behave is certainly not a challenge unique to India. 

Personally, I’ll mourn the day India adopts western flying etiquette – even if it’s not the Magaluf kind. Global flight decorum is designed for convenience, not colour. I would rather Indian trains take to the skies; imagine being able to buy proper chai on a flight and having a friendly haggle with the stewardess without the robotic politeness we’ve all just accepted as the norm. Maybe there’s a case for redesigning aircrafts to take into account that each human body is as unique as a handcrafted samosa. And imagine being able to negotiate a window seat far away from a crying baby. I’d take that flight.

Salonee Gadgil is on the editorial team at Creative Review magazine. She tweets @saloneegadgil