In a country where women travellers face myriad dangers, one Indian airline has an idea: chivalry, and no middle seats.
With its woman flyer service, Vistara has begun offering to help women flying solo with their bags, escort them to and from their ground transportation, and give them preferred window and aisle seats on their flights — no middles.
The New Delhi-based airline says around 75-100 women use the complimentary service each day. It is believed to be the first airline to offer such a service.
Sanjiv Kapoor, Vistara’s chief strategy and commercial officer, said the airline began offering it after noticing women seeking help after their planes had landed. “Our staff is equipped to help women travelling alone with the booking of airport-authorised taxis, as well as escort them to the airport taxi stand upon their request,” Kapoor said via email. “This service is a sincere effort to ensure peace of mind of our women customers.”
India is forecast to become the world’s sixth-largest business travel market by 2019, according to the Global Business Travel Association, but it’s gained an international reputation for being unsafe for women.
In its notices to Americans about travelling to India, the US state department is blunt on the danger of sexual assault: “US citizens, particularly women, are cautioned not to travel alone in India.” Australia and the United Kingdom offer similar, slightly more circumscribed warnings for women to avoid travelling alone on Indian public transit. In sexual assault cases in India, “successful prosecutions are rare,” advises Australia’s department of foreign affairs and trade.
The problems for India’s tourism flow directly from cultural issues around gender inequality in the society, said Marta Turnbull, editor of the International Women’s Travel Centre, a resource site that compiles a list of the 10 most dangerous countries for women travellers using a variety of government travel warnings, UN data, and other sources. India is fifth on that list, which also includes Brazil, Mexico, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
“We did find there is a correlation between what happens to local women and women travellers,” said Turnbull, who lives in Boulder, Colorado, the USA. “There are a lot of activists who are taking it on as an issue. We’re optimistic that things will get better, but it will take a while — a long time.”
In efforts to combat sexual assault and harassment on public transit, officials from Kolkata to Mexico City to Leipzig, Germany, have tried offering separate train cars and buses reserved for women and children. Mexico City, where surveys have found that as many as 90 per cent of women riders do not feel safe, went so far as to install a seat on the subway moulded with a male torso, and penis, to call attention to the problem.
While women-only transportation zones have shown some success and proven popular among some passengers, they have also been criticised for implying that women must be segregated in order not to be harassed.
A study Middlesex University researchers conducted in 2015 for the UK department for transport when it was exploring such ideas found they would mark “a retrograde step” in countries like the UK where gender equality was the norm. “Although women-only transport may be an effective means of reducing unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport in some countries, they are essentially ‘short-term fixes’ and reinforce a message that women must be contained and segregated in order to be protected,” it found.
Vistara, meanwhile, hopes to extend its new service for women to international flights once it expands outside of India. In May, Bloomberg News reported that the airline, which flies an all-Airbus A320 domestic fleet, was seeking to recruit pilots trained on Boeing aircraft — a signal the carrier is considering leasing or buying Boeing jets for longer-haul routes outside the country.
Two rival airlines, IndiGo and Jet Airways India, did not reply to messages seeking comment about Vistara’s new service for women, which began in March. Tata Sons owns 51 per cent of Vistara, which began flying in January 2015; Singapore Airlines controls the rest.