The easing of the Covid-19 pandemic and removal of restrictions around the world has meant an increase in the number of travellers. The aviation sector is back on its feet, with flight schedules returning to normalcy everywhere, including in India. But the height of the travel season that coincided with the end of 2022 also led to overcrowding and chaotic scenes at major Indian airports.

The increased volume of passengers has highlighted the inadequate preparation in terms of infrastructure and resources that has led to airports being overwhelmed with serpentine queues for check-in, security and immigration, as well as technical snags and poor passenger support.

Passengers have vented on social media about their trying experiences: around the first two weeks of December, Twitter was full of travellers complaining about the long wait-times and queues at New Delhi’s T3 airport terminal. The outrage had prompted Union Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia to visit the facility on December 12.

Lean workforces

Amid the frustrations of passengers and the quick-fix solutions being offered, a structural problem remains the elephant in the room – that of a “lean workforce”.

Originating from corporate human resources management philosophy for better operations as well as increased productivity, maintaining a lean workforce is championed in the guise of efficiency and to incentivise individual potential. Flexibility is a central component of running a successful “lean workforce” programme, now the norm in most sectors of work.

Applying the principles of a “lean workforce” is aimed at keeping labour aligned with demand, thereby ensuring lower costs. This essentially means the removal of all possible encumbrances that limit efficiency, prevent “waste” and enable managements to venture unhindered into brand-building and profit maximisation.

How is the lean workforce philosophy related to the chaos at airports? One of the choke points at airports, for instance, are that few check-in and baggage counters are fully staffed, even during peak hours. This could very well be extended to the other choke points of security and immigration, which fall directly under the purview of the Union government.

Along with the lean workforce philosophy is the outsourcing of the workforce where most of the staff is not even directly on the payrolls of the companies. Rather, they are classified as temporary employees – or “temps” – recruited through third-party manpower supply or labour dispatch agencies.

Over the years, there has been a marked proliferation of such agencies that recruit and supply labour to various sectors. The increased use of temporary workers is not unique to India but is a global phenomenon with the rise of the gig economy, with antecedents in America.

Structural solutions, not quick-fixes

The use of sugar-coated, feel-good phrases, like “small is beautiful”, to valourise and justify the lean workforce philosophy masks the physical and emotional strain of employees who face increased responsibility and strain without necessarily gaining commensurate financial benefit or entitlements.

In continuing to champion downsizing and “streamlining”, the obsession of managements to prioritise the cost to company over health and a robust workplace ecosystem, is dehumanising for the employed workforce.

As is visible from the experiences of passengers, such an approach inevitably affects the image and credibility of a brand or entity, whose well-being is inextricably linked to customer satisfaction and positive feedback.

Several solutions have been offered by the civil aviation ministry, airport operators, other stakeholders and even passengers, ranging from steps such as increasing scanners, asking passengers to arrive early at the airport and to avoid carrying objects that could be marked suspicious by the scanner thus interrupting the flow of the queue.

While many of these short-term, micro steps – jugaad, as frugal work-arounds are popularly referred to in India – are no doubt handy, they can only go so far. The chaos at airports also underlines the limits of technological-management quick-fixes in addressing the structural basis of a problem. Acknowledging the problem might be a good start towards finding sound solutions.

Anand P Krishnan is a Visiting Faculty at National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, and a Visiting Associate Fellow, at Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.