It’s what they call the Incredible India experience. The package includes swooning at the Taj Mahal, enjoying parathas near Chandni Chowk, rooting for India in cricket at Wankhede stadium in Mumbai, paying off a traffic cop and negotiating South to North Mumbai traffic, to name just a few. As an Indian who has lived in India most of her life before shifting to squeaky-clean, irritatingly disciplined Dubai, I admit I have done most of the above and more. However, there was one vital activity missing from my India experience-log book – flying Air India, the national airline. On a trip back home for Diwali a few weeks ago, I did that as well. What follows is an honest account of a truly incredible experience.
Before I begin, a brief introduction to Air India. Its history dates back to the times of JRD Tata back in 1932 before it finally became the country’s official airline in the 1950s. The cute, rotund Maharaja – the symbol of Air India – has seen glorious times but that was then. These days, the Emperor constantly makes headlines for being the worst performing airline, frequent pilot strikes, pathetic service and massive corruption.
Then there are the inevitable ‘Air India’ stories – a euphemism for any AI-bashing article that reporters used to file in the newspaper I used to work for. In fact, things like flight delays, poor service or roaches in food were considered ‘routine stuff’ not worthy of playing up. For an Air India story to make headlines, the content deserved to be much more bizarre than a mere delay of a few hours. For instance, a mid-air scare being created because the plane door wasn’t properly locked. Or the story of the rapping pilot who abused his seniors in a rap song. My personal favourite is the one where the pilot reportedly delayed a Mumbai-Jodhpur-Delhi flight because she had placed an order for and wanted to pick up – believe it or not –the famous Jodhpuri pyaaz ki kachoris!
However, these concerns didn’t strike me when I made reservations on October 5, 2013 on an Air India flight to Delhi for Diwali holidays. I had planned it to the T. I was to fly at midnight October 25 (00.05am Dubai time) by AI 996 from Dubai to Delhi. I was to reach the airport by 9pm, straight from office. The flight would take off at 00.05am and I would land in Delhi at 4.45 am and reach home by 6am IST. My return flight (AI 947) was on November 4 at 3pm IST and I would reach Dubai at 5.30pm Dubai time. Perfect.
Alas, what do they say about the best-laid plans?
On the night of October 24, I arrived exactly at 9pm for the 00.05am flight. The Air India counters were crowded but there was no one at the Delhi counter and passengers were simply queuing up to check in. Finally, after about 30 minutes, the bomb dropped – the fight had been delayed to 2.30am! No explanation was offered even as people, with a what-to-do-this-was-expected-of-AI-expression started making plans to spend the next three hours at the airport. After about 20 minutes, a kind soul informed us we could check in and get our boarding passes. Relived that I wouldn’t have to loiter in the airport lugging my bags, I did the needful and got the boarding pass with the departure time mentioned as 2.30am and boarding at 1.30am.
Great - four hours to kill and nothing to do! So I did the only thing that struck me – shopping! After scouting every store, admiring every single bottle of perfume and alcohol and filling my shopping bag with things I didn’t need, I checked my watch for the nth time – finally it was 1.30am!
However, when I reached the gate, instead of people lining up to enter the aircraft, what I saw was a huge commotion. Uh, oh, not a good sign… And true enough, my worst fears had come true. The flight had been delayed till 10am that morning owing to a ‘technical snag’. Predictably no arrangements were made for food or stay. (Correction… there was provision for dinner. We were grandly told we could have one meal at McDonalds – AI would foot the bill!)
Now, while Dubai airport is very attractive, the thought of spending EIGHT more hours there was just tedious – especially since all that I wanted to do was reach home and meet my family after nearly a year. I be-friended another passenger, a single female traveler like me and spent time with her (after all it was better to be miserable together than alone!). Other passengers, angry and irritated, were seen searching for spots to spend the rest of the night. Some were seen putting their small kids to sleep on the floor.
After spending an hour chatting, reading and surfing the net, the clock still seemed to move very slowly. Finally at about 5am, my new friend and I decided to try make some lemonade out of the lemons AI had handed us – we decided to go to the airport spa and get a massage done to cool our heads! It was the first time in my life that I was getting a head massage at 5am though it did nothing to quell the anger and irritation or fatigue. Another hour and I decided to have breakfast – taking up on the McDonalds offer that AI had so kindly made. Unfortunately this one didn’t work too – the offer was only on some meals and not all.
By around 8am, the information board showed the flight timings as 10.30am. A delay of another 30 minutes. Again, there was no one around to explain the delay even as passengers walked from one end of the airport to another trying to get some information. Three more excruciating hours later, the flight finally arrived! The time it took off? 11.30am – a delay of totally 11 hours and nearly 15 hours spent at the airport. By the time I reached home it was 5pm IST in the evening (instead of 6am IST), on Friday October 25.
Needless to say, it took one week of ghar ka khana, ma ka pyaar and Diwali celebrations to forget my travel pains!
RETURN FLIGHT ORDEAL
What do you call a person who makes a mistake once? Confused or misinformed. What do you call a person who makes the same mistake twice? An optimist! At least that what I was for I felt nothing could go wrong in the return flight. So after a blissful week at home, I reached Delhi airport on November 4 at 1pm to take the flight (AI 947) back to Dubai (scheduled to take off at 3pm).
And the nightmare began right at the entrance. When I arrived, I didn’t see the flight listed. I had checked up on the internet which showed the flight was on track so it was puzzling. There were only two or three officials at the Air India counters (the Diwali holidays were still on, silly!) and none of them had a clue. Apprehensive, I went to check in my luggage. And the official coolly said, “Sorry ma’m, the flight does not exist. It has been stopped since a month!”
It was too ridiculous to be true! I had made my reservations just a few weeks before on October 5! There had been no message or email informing me of its disappearance. “Oh didn’t you receive any e-mail?” the guy asked matter-of-factly.
“No!!” I almost screamed. “That’s the least you could do – INFORM!”
After some arguing and questioning, I was told that I had been transferred to another Air India flight that night that was to take off at 8.40pm. It effectively meant spending another six to seven hours at the airport with no guarantee of whether it would take off on time.
This time the option was clear. I decided to book myself on another flight since I needed to reach Dubai at the earliest. Thankfully there were a few seats on an Indigo flight that was scheduled for 5pm. I bought a ticket for nearly Rs15,000.
As it turned out, Air India hadn’t bothered to update their own or the travel website (through which I had made my reservations) which is why flight still existed online and not offline.
The next step was to cancel the old ticket and after a lot arguing, I was promised I would get a refund.
I am still waiting for it after three weeks.
Now, a lot of awful things can happen when you fly… flights can be delayed, your luggage could get misplaced, the airhostess could be rude to you or worse… you could get hijacked! Perhaps a delayed and cancelled flight doesn’t rank high up on the ‘bad flight experience’ list. However, there is something about Air India, our once-esteemed national airline that makes it all so… umm… incredible. Perhaps it’s the chaos, the suspense of whether you would reach safely and on time, the unpredictability of what’s in store and ultimately the relief when things go fine. It’s just like living in India. Try it to know it.