Every vehicle has a registration plate that identifies which country or state it has been registered and a unique number.
Every aircraft has a unique registration identifier, too, that is painted on the fuselage and on the wings.
Civilian aircraft have markings that identify the country in which the aircraft is registered, and the markings have been determined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The system of markings has been in place for decades, and the nomenclature convention was adopted in 1928. The makings have a one or two letter prefix that identifies the country and a set of alphabets and/or numbers as a suffix that is unique to the aircraft. The unique marking is, usually, not transferred to another aircraft.
Based on this system, aircraft registered in the U.S.A. carry a prefix “N”, those in the United Kingdom have “G”, Canada uses “C”, Germany uses “D”, and the Netherlands uses “PH”
Civilian aircraft registered in India carry the prefix “VT”
The VT prefix was allocated to India in 1928 when it still a British colony. The prefixes “VA” to “VZ” were allocated to the countries under British rule, and Australia got “VH” while India got “VT”.
Some countries such as Sri Lanka later changed their prefixes, but India has not done so even after independence.
There are people who have objected to India staying with the “VT” prefix saying that it denotes “Viceroy Territory” and is reminiscent of its colonial past.
The fact is that the “VT” is merely an abbreviation, a code, and does not signify any colonial connection. The “T” in “VT” is a random alphabet that was assigned in 1928, and it could well have been any other.
I understand that India approached the ICAO more than a decade ago to seek a change that would more clearly identify India – suggestions included “IN” (India), “BH” (Bharat) or “HI” (Hindustan), but these were not feasible since the first letters in each of these options have already been allocated – “I” to Italy, “B” to China, and “HI” to the Dominican Republic.
It would have been nice to have a prefix that was associated with India, but, at the end of the day, does it really matter? It is an identifier – no more, no less.
You really need to ask, “what’s in a name?”
Today’s aircraft are pressurized, air-conditioned, and very comfortable to fly in. Thousands of travelers feel comfortable wearing T shirts as they settle into their seats, watch inflight movies, enjoy a meal, have a nap, and walk out when their destination arrives, without any stress.
It wasn’t always this way, though.
Then and now
During World War II, the China National Aviation Holding Company (CNAC) that was part-owned by Pan Am, flew hundreds of sorties, over the eastern Himalayas (referred to as the Hump, those days) from India to China. The Hump was a crucial route for CNAC and the Allied forces for ferrying supplies and equipment into China during the war.
Life was not easy for the (mainly American and British) pilots and the other crew. Operating from primitive air strips in eastern India, the non-pressurized aircraft had to reckon with Japanese fighter planes, high mountains, and unpredictable weather, on the way across.
Flying the DC-3 aircraft in those conditions was not comfortable either.
I quote Donald McBride, one of the CNAC pilots who flew the Hump during the period 1943-45, who wrote about the conditions.
“You would get in the airplane down in the jungle. It would be 150 degrees (I am sure he meant Fahrenheit) in the airplane with all the windows open. We didn’t mind for the first 10,000 feet because that sucked out the hot air.
The first thing we did when we got in the airplane was to take off our clothes down to our shorts, shoes and a pair of gloves. You could not touch the controls without gloves. They were too hot. After you got up to about 10,000 feet, you’d start putting your pants on. By the time you got to 15,000 feet you were putting on a fur-lined flying suit. At 20,000 you were freezing to death. I’ve seen it 55 below (must be Fahrenheit again) up there. You had a lot of things to contend with.”
That was then, and the intrepid pilots and other crew members worked in all those conditions.
We take flying comfort so much for granted today.
I started writing this piece some years ago but did not get around to posting it. It is still relevant, though. In the intervening years, I have flown many more times in the Emirates A380 Business Class section, and twice in First Class (a 16-hour haul to Toronto and a 9-hour leg from Seoul). The experience of flying on this aircraft continues to be awesome.
I just had to share this.
Having flown business class several times in the past, one has seen what it is like to enjoy premium class travel.
The experience of flying business class in an Emirates A380 was, however, quite something else. In the past, I have flown in the economy class cabin of A380, which was very comfortable even by current day wide-body long haul aircraft standards. But I had heard a lot about the business class on the A380, and looked forward with eager anticipation to this 13-hour intercontinental flight.
The sheer size of this aircraft awes you as you board, and it is a different feeling when you walk directly in from a door in the upper level, unlike in a Boeing 747.
The interior is awesome, and as I settled into my seat, I couldn’t help wonder about how much thought had gone into making each seat a personal comfort zone – amenities conveniently to hand, a place to stow one’s shoes, soft drinks and bottled water in a shelf next to the seat, and a personal cubicle kind of layout that ensured substantial privacy.
I watched the take-off on the large TV screen using the tail-fin camera view – something that is unique to this aircraft, and mentally willed this giant to rotate and lift off as it lumbered down the runway.
When the seat belt signs were switched off, I walked towards the rear of the business class section and came across a large lounge with a bar (that reminds you of a classy 5-star hotel), where one can hang around, have a drink and canapés, and pass the time.
After a reasonably good dinner, I decided to sleep. The seat reclined to full-flat position, a mattress was provided, and having covered myself with a blanket, I drifted off into deep sleep. I do sleep on long flights, but never for more than two hours at a time. This time, though, I slept for seven hours at a stretch, and woke up surprised that we were a mere two hours or so from our destination.
The A380 is an amazing aircraft, a marvel of engineering, and it was a pleasure discovering all those little details that go towards making long journeys comfortable – this applies to economy and business class. I have heard and read about the first class section – private suites, etc – designed to pamper the high net worth traveler.
I alighted with a trace of regret that the flight had ended so soon – it had been a wonderful experience.
I wrote a post in April 2009 about Indian aviation titled “Flying in those days”, and referred to a small airline called Jamair.
Since then, I have received messages from two people who were closely involved with Jamair, though in different ways.
One was from Katherine Quinn, the daughter of one of Jamair’s founders, Eddie Quinn. I had posted her comment in September 2011.
The other was this morning from Lalit Mawkin who wrote, “This is just amazing — 5th December 1970, my uncle Captain SS Sehgal was co-pilot with Captain Mehta and they died in that crash behind INA. I was just browsing about 1970 and Jamiar and found this post which carried me back to 1970’s. Thanks. LK Mawkin
Thanks for your comment, Lalit. I am sure you recall your uncle with considerable pride.
In today’s jet age, we forget about those intrepid fliers who helped transform commercial aviation. They deserve to be saluted.
I came across a very interesting concept at Frankfurt, Munich and Hannover airports – a Quick Boarding gate for Lufthansa flights. It looks like any other gate, with a small difference.
The gate staff does not take your boarding card. Instead, one has to hold the boarding card with the face down on a scanner, and on hearing a beep, walk through. The whole process is very quick, and saves time for the passengers as well as the staff.
A small twist that I observed – one passenger had a printed copy of an online check-in, and his seat number had changed since then – when he scanned the boarding he was carrying with him, the machine printed out another boarding card with the changed seat – all this in a few seconds.
I read that Continental Airlines has launched a self-boarding trial at Houston Airport, while Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, one hears, also has this in operation.
The flight was full and it took quite a while for the cabin crew to get the passengers sorted out – no mean feat considering that several had oversize cabin baggage, refused to let other travelers pass by, and some even wanted to have their seats changed.
One particular passenger, seated three rows ahead of me across the aisle, caught my attention. There was a deliberate swagger in his gait as he walked in, he grumbled about the co-travelers who blocked his way, and loudly demanded that the cabin crew bring him some water.
I heard him announce loudly to the person seated beside him that he was a senior manager with a large multinational and was traveling economy only because someone in the travel desk had goofed.
The loud-voiced diatribe went on well past take-off, and I could sense that other passengers were getting a bit sick of it. No one said anything though.
Twenty minutes prior to landing when the aircraft had begun its descent and the seatbelt sign was on, the inevitable happened. A member of the crew, laden with used trays, walked past this person and accidentally dropped a partially full glass of juice onto his lap.
The guy leapt out of his seat like a scalded cat, berated the hapless air hostess for messing up his trousers, and bolted for the lavatory. It didn’t end there. When the purser, who observed the man disappear into the loo, waited outside and enquired about what happened when he finally emerged, the gent let fly yet again about the carelessness of the crew, the apparent lack of service, and more.
The purser, perhaps a veteran of many such episodes, put on a patently fake smile, placed a friendly but firm hand on the guy’s shoulder, spoke a few words of apology, directed him back to his seat, and told him to stay put.
Did the story end there? No, not quite.
Our flight arrived late, and this guy missed his connection. The next flight was eighteen hours later and he would have to cool his heels in the airport.
I think most observers rejoiced at this. And the traveler beside him who had endured patiently for close on two hours told him, “My friend, make as much noise as you want, but no one here cares who you are. Enjoy your walk around the airport for the next few hours, it will do you some good.”
The guy exited the aircraft with the look of a deflated balloon, and those who had watched his pantomime couldn’t hide the grin on their faces.
It takes all types, I suppose.
It is strange how the colour of one’s skin evokes irrational and, sometimes, idiotic responses. Brings out the worst in some people.
It was an early morning flight out of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, and the kids were sleepy. It had been a hectic, but enjoyable, four days at Euro Disney, and all one could now think of was settling into the aircraft seat and have a long nap on the eight-hour flight back.
We were booked on business class, and as I wheeled the luggage trolley towards the check-in counter, a stern looking member of the Air France staff jerked her thumb dismissively towards another counter and rudely said “Economy is that side.”
“Isn’t this the Business Class counter?” I asked.
“Yes, go to the Economy counter”, she replied, with a superior manner and a voice that dripped with irritation.
I could feel the anger welling inside me but chose to keep my composure. “Would you mind having a look at my ticket?” I asked in as measured a tone as possible.
It evoked no response since the lady had turned away and was pretending to be busy with something important.
“This does it,” I thought to myself, “these rude guys are going to get an earful from me.”
A supervisor happened to observe the exchange and came forward to ask what the matter was. I told him that I was here to check-in and showed him the tickets. To his credit, he completed the formalities. There was, however, no apology, no friendliness.
As we left the counter to head for the departure area, I told him that he and his colleague were the most impolite airline staff I had ever encountered in all my travels, and that they were an utter disgrace not only to their airline but also to the entire industry. I also told him that they were not doing anyone any favours since it was the paying passenger, irrespective of class of travel, that ultimately provided these staff with a livelihood.
He didn’t like my comment, but I couldn’t care less.
It is evident that some people have vacuum between the ears.
To the airline’s credit, the service on board was better.
I have been flying into India’s international airports for almost a quarter of a century, and, for years, it used to be frustrating, after a long flight, to have to stand in the interminable queues at passport control.
One had to stand patiently as a sleepy official examined your passport from all angles and then laboriously typed in your details on an archaic computer, all the time searching for the appropriate key to press.
Times have changed, and the past few years have been a pleasure. Passport control in Mumbai airport, for instance, is a breeze, and whatever maybe the time of day or the number of wide-bodied aircraft that have deposited their passengers by the hundreds, the line moves swiftly, and one is through in a jiffy. The staff is courteous and has a smile on their faces, there isn’t too much conversation, and the wait at the counter is generally under a minute. This beats the time it takes in most of the major airports of the world.
Whatever else has, or has not, happened in India, this is one major plus, and one has to give full marks to the people who run this operation and have made it work.
Pity, though, that all this good work is ruined by a surly “havaldar” who sits on a stool just after you exit passport control, and who insists on leafing through every page of your passport searching for the entry stamp. Defies logic. After all, one wouldn’t have reached this point had the passport not been stamped, so what’s the purpose of having this additional check?
I have never figured that one out.