| Gender divide: Former Union minister for civil aviation Shahnawaz Hussain stretches on a flat-bed seat. (PTI file picture)
London, Nov. 14: Air-India is to take account of 'Indian culture' by building plastic screens between flat beds in first class 'so that women travelling alone do not have to lie side by side with strange men', it was disclosed today.
'This will give them a certain amount of privacy,' said an informed source.
He was revealing some of the plans Air-India has to meet the challenge of Virgin Atlantic and British Airways who are fighting for a share of the 21 extra direct flights between the UK and India.
Flat beds in first class are one of the innovations Richard Branson is proud to have introduced on Virgin Atlantic flights.
'It is ok to be side by side when you are sitting up,' the source said. 'But when you are lying side by side, turning your head this way and that, it is ok with husband and wife, but something much more difficult when the man is a complete stranger,' the source said.
It has been reported that the English actor, Liz Hurley, who was travelling first class on a British Airways flight, fetched her boyfriend, Arun Nayar, from club class, so that they could lie side by side on their flat beds. Fellow passengers on that flight later complained to the Mirror newspaper that the couple embarrassed others by having sex.
There is another far more radical plan that the Air-India management has persuaded the Indian government to accept. This is the decision to recruit foreign pilots, mainly British, who will be based in Britain but who will fly planes for Air-India.
The source said: 'The decision has been taken. The Indian pilots, who are heavily unionised, have accepted the decision.'
Air-India planes, many of which are over 10 years old and often look tatty inside when compared with Branson's Virgin fleet, will be done up by next year 'so that they look new'.
The realisation seems to hit the Air-India management that India's civil aviation industry will go to the wall, said the source, 'unless quick decisions are taken now to invest heavily' in India's national carrier.
According to one estimate, Air-India needs to place an immediate order for about ten 747s, which would take at least three years to build and deliver and cost around ' 700 million.
'The money is there,' it is claimed.
Air-India officials, meanwhile, have taken issue with a claim by Branson that Virgin was denied the chance to bid for the three weekly flights British Airways currently operates to Calcutta.
'It was a big stitch-up,' a Virgin spokesman said.
Four years ago, there was a bilateral agreement between the British and Indian governments, under which the number of direct flights between Britain and India was increased from 13 to 16. But British Airways, which had 13 direct flights, was given the three flights to Calcutta.
'The three flights were locked to Calcutta,' an official said.
Virgin, which was trying to enter the Indian market at the time, argues it should have been given the chance to bid for them.
Virgin has made a complaint about the BA Calcutta flights to the Civil Aviation Authority, which will decide within a fortnight how the 21 extra flights to India are to be carved up between BA, Virgin and British Midland.
In its evidence, it said: 'Although Virgin was at that moment lobbying for access to India, the negotiations between the British and Indian governments were carried out in secret and the agreement was signed without letting Virgin know about the discussions or allowing it any input to the shape of the agreement (Virgin would normally expect to be consulted along with other UK carriers).'
It added: 'British Airways immediately took up the rights, adding three non-stop flights a week to Calcutta to replace the previous thrice-weekly Heathrow-Delhi-Calcutta flights. British Airways continues to this day to use all 19 frequencies available to UK carriers under the UK-India bilateral.'