A tale of two cities

Air India Express should be called Air India Erratic. You can’t expect it to fly on time.  Passengers flying from Singapore, however, can check flight times with Changi airport. It provides better information than the airline itself.

Don’t ask me how. But that’s what I found on December 13.

It was a Monday, when Air India Express operates a night flight from Singapore to Dhaka via Kolkata. But there was no flight that night, I discovered when I checked the Changi airport website in the morning.  The flight, which was due to leave at 9.30 pm, had been rescheduled to 1.30 am on December 14. To be doubly sure, I called the airport and spoke to an operator, who confirmed the change in timing.

I alerted the daughter of one of my wife’s friends, who was flying to Kolkata. But she called back to say her family in Kolkata had rung up the airline office and Dum Dum airport. And they had been told there had been no change in schedule: the flight would land at Dum Dum around `11 pm on December 13.

They were sadly mistaken. When we reached Changi airport, we saw the flight had been rescheduled to leave at 1.30 am. The airline had sent out an SMS, but by then the passengers had already begun to arrive at the airport. We saw a long queue of Bangladeshi workers at the check-in counters. The airline arranged free dinner for the passengers at the airport, but think of their ordeal.  The hapless passengers spent hours waiting at Changi and then landed bleary-eyed in Kolkata a little before 4 am, when you would rather be sleeping at home than driving down dark, deserted roads to pick anyone up at the airport.

Why couldn’t the airline office in Kolkata and Dum Dum airport say the flight would be late when I could get that information from Changi? After all, it was the airline which rescheduled the flight, not Changi.

Air India Express can be erratic, but I take it because it’s the only budget airline flying non-stop between Singapore and Kolkata.

Changi airport, on the other hand, has to provide good service because tourism and aviation are big business in Singapore. More than 40 million passengers passed through Changi this year. Serving more than 90 international airlines flying to some 200 cities in 60 countries, Changi handles about 5,000 arrivals and departures every week.

Singapore earned S$12.8 billion from tourism last year when there were nearly 9.7 million visitors. The tourism revenue amounted to nearly five per cent of the gross domestic product. .

Changi has changed and grown with the times. I remember a bus service from the airport used to stop near Tekka Market in Little India. Hordes of men used to get off there early in the morning, clad in lungis and chappals. Those were the days when “couriers” used to fly back to India with electronic goods from Singapore. Now, instead of the bus, one can take the train to the airport. And seldom do you see shoppers in lungis and chappals.

Some things haven’t changed, though. Orchard Road and Sentosa remain the top tourist attractions, followed by Little India, Chinatown, Singapore River, Merlion Park, Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari.

Gadgets still top the Indian shopping list. More than a third of the S$189 million (Rs 6.5 billion) Indian visitors spent on shopping last year went on consumer technology products like mobile phones and digital cameras. All the figures here are from the Singapore Tourism Board.

India remains one of the biggest markets for Singapore, generating S$801 million in tourism receipts last year, less than only Indonesia (S$2.1 billion), China (S$1.3 billion) and Australia (S$952 million).

The number of Indian visitors has grown significantly, with more than 700,000 arriving annually since 2007. Over 60 per cent are male. More than half the nearly million visitors from China last year, on the other hand, were women. The Indians stayed almost six days on average and the Chinese, four days.

It’s interesting how visitors differ from country to country. The vast majority from India are holidaymakers travelling en famille. More than 60 per cent come with their spouses; over 25 per cent bring their children.

The Indians are more like the Australians than the Chinese. More than 60 per cent of the Australians come with their spouses and over 15 per cent are accompanied by young children.

Just over 30 per cent of the Chinese come with their spouses. Less than 10 per cent bring children. Nearly 40 per cent come alone and over 20 per cent with business associates or colleagues.

But just over half the Chinese check into hotels; the rest stay with friends or relatives or in other places. Nearly 70 per cent of the Indians and almost 75 per cent of the Australians stay in hotels. Singapore hotels earned nearly S$2.5 billion last year.

Retailers earn more than hoteliers from tourists, who spent almost S$3.3 billion on shopping last year. The Chinese spent over S$600 million while the Indians spent S$189 million and the Australians S$213 million.

The Chinese are more frequent visitors. About 51 per cent of the Indians last year were visiting Singapore for the first time while more than half the Chinese had been here before. That may have something to do with Singapore being a Chinese city; the vast majority of its population is Chinese. More Chinese can stay with friends and relatives in Singapore.

Not that Indians are likely to feel out of place. They are all over the island, so you will feel right at home.

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