Women travelling on Indian airline Vistara get special treatment

With its Woman Flyer service, Vistara has begun offering to help women flying solo.
With its Woman Flyer service, Vistara has begun offering to help women flying solo. PHOTO: VISTAR/FACEBOOk

NEW DELHI (BLOOMBERG) - 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 between 75 and 100 women use the complimentary service, which began in March, each day. It is believed to be the first airline to offer such a service.

Mr 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," Mr Kapoor said via e-mail. "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 has gained an international reputation for being unsafe for women - particularly since the brutal 2012 gang rape, torture, and murder of a medical student attacked on a public bus in New Delhi.

In its notices to Americans about travelling to India, the United States 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", Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advises. Street harassment, controversially known as "Eve teasing", is common.

The problems for India's tourism flow directly from cultural issues around gender inequality in Indian society, said Ms Marta Turnbull, editor of the International Women's Travel Center, a resource site that compiles a list of the 10 most dangerous countries for women travellers using a variety of government travel warnings, United Nations 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 travelers," said Ms Turnbull. "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 Calcutta to Mexico City to 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 molded 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 that Middlesex University researchers conducted in 2015 for the UK Department of 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 protect them," the study 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 that the carrier is considering leasing or buying Boeing jets for longer-haul routes outside the country.