The first occasion was a flight from Goa to Chennai: I was returning from a week long vacation with my wife. The flight, scheduled to start at something like 8 am - making us leave from our wonderful home stay, couple of hours drive away, at a less than preferable hour of 5:00 am, only to find that the flight has been delayed by a mere 6 hours. Oh, if you are thinking that was barely inconvenient, I'll have you know that it's never as silly as that with Air India. They don't bestow their kindness too easy. Here is the sequence of events:
1. We land at the airport at 6:30 am to see an indefinite delay sign.
2. Look for assistance, and well, it was obviously early in the morning to get any of that. 3. Have coffee, catch a bite. Catch a nap, which still didn't cure the growing unease when the clock edged fairly close to the take-off time, and yet no news of the new departure time or of any staff!!
4. Its half hour to take off and I was beginning to be just a tad bit unsure if I landed at the right airport/right day.
5. Both clarified with ease, we find our meandering way to the first sight of an Air India staff.
Now, and only now...
6. We got the good news easy. Admittedly no more tarry. And even after that things moved fast - towards a cheap hotel (incidentally AI still didn't make a public announcement of the delay and that they were ushering away the passengers to a hotel to rest).
7. Whoever had the foresight to seek out the staff were herded out.
So, Goa ended with fond memories and a minor note to avoid Air India. A note so minor, it was soon forgotten.
So there was a second occasion. Not returning from a relaxing vacation to be surprised by a wonderful delay, this time. Worry not, for we are yet in for something special. The Air India flight was to take me, on Sunday evening 6pm, from Chennai to Mumbai, so that I could join my new job - with the world's more profitable financial company, which for some weird reason expects its new employees to to be punctual, on a Monday morning. I arrive at the airport at 5pm a good hour before the departure, which some may say is generous for a domestic flight, and happily found my way around the new, and isolated, sprawling airport Chennai has recently opened. After lugging around a fair bit of luggage towards the Air India's entry gate ( I was relocating cities to join my new job), I was promptly informed by the smiling guard that my flight is waiting in the International terminal. Did I say that my ticket makes no mention of this inconvenient fact? In fact it says, Air India "may operate" in international terminal only in Mumbai and Delhi. So, bad luck, if you happened to read the fine print. If you didn't, well still bad luck, maybe less so for you are the kind who actually bothers to ensure you reach the right airport, you might also have planned the arrival time well. Now, the complications get extremely interesting.
Not only was the international terminal nowhere close to the domestic, there is absolutely no transportation between the two places. Nevertheless, I ran (the best I could with 30 kgs in row) and tried to flag down every passing vehicle, hoping that I can make it in the next 20 minutes (40 mins is the minimum time to reach check-in for a domestic flight). And miraculously, I managed to hail a cab who generously agreed to take me to the international terminal for a mere Rs.500, and cover the 2 kilometers in 10 mins. To his credit, he did.
I reach the Air India counter a bit out of breath but happy, only to see no sign of people or of any announcement on what flight they were currently boarding. Nonplussed, I tried to attract the attention of a small group of staff sitting away from the counter and enjoying a mild banter, and ask them if they knew anything about this flight number that I was supposed to board. Mildly surprised, one of them half-amused says,
Bantering staff: Sir, that flight has already left.
Bantering staff: Well, it has not left yet, but the check-in is closed.
Me: but there is still 45 mins left.
Bantering staff: But the counter closes 1 hour before take-off
Me: Why? Isn't this a domestic flight
Bantering staff: No, its an international flight
Me: What? I am flying Chennai to Mumbai. How is that international?
Bantering staff: After Mumbai the flight goes to Dubai
Me: <Blank expression>
Me: So what can be done?
Bantering staff: Nothing
Me: How do you mean nothing. Can you book me on another flight?
Bantering staff: Nope. There is no other flight
Me:Ok. Can you talk to the chief of staff. The flight hasn't yet boarded. I am here and there is still (now 45 mins) good time left.
Bantering staff: No nothing can be done
Me: Can you talk to someone at least?
Then he vanishes into the office for a few seconds. I am soon joined by three other people who, like me, have had to do a treasure hunt to find this counter after going to wrong terminals.
We <in chorus>: so what can be done?
Bantering staff: Nothing sir. The manager says the flight is boarded.
The conversation goes through a whole cycle again, wherein each of the aggrieved party tries to reason with this attendant. Cutting to the final bits of the conversation
We: Ok, so you can't board us. You can't give us a different ticket. How about a refund.
Bantering staff: Contact the call center.
We: The number please?
Bantering staff: Its closed now. Will re-open Monday morning
At our wits end the bunch resigns ourselves to the fate. Make a beeline for the reservation counter of a different airline in a different terminal, while wondering why we chose to fly Air India. In this pensive
state while trying to exit the terminal the security force stops us and says we can't leave. Now what? We can't fly and we can't leave. The smirking guard says, "why do you guys insist on flying with Air India"… and then says,
its not that we can't leave. We can, if the flight attendant signs a register. Now back we go running to the "Bantering staff" who conveniently saved this piece of information from us. Slowly we shuffle out, buy another ticket and kiss our 8-9000 rupees good bye. ANd I readied myself to explain to my new employer, why I can't reach office on my first day, till noon.
Now, what we decide as a group seldom gets done when we are alone. So, cut to today, I choose to fly Air India again! (I told you, its me, and just me who should be given credits for the wonderful fortune)
But today's flight began better. They called me yesterday night to let me know that I should reach the airport 2 hours before the flight (scheduled for 11 am) - and thanks to my past experience, I dutifully obeyed. Better still, I thought I will play it safer - checked in online, and didn't carry a check-in luggage. So when I reached the international terminal (I got that right too this time, despite the e-ticket saying nothing of the kind) at a little past 9, I was very hopeful to clear security in the next 15 mins and catch a nap. So I was fairly unprepared for the first surprise - I tried to be smart, as the Air India's website advertised, and just collect the boarding pass fast, for I had no reason to wait in the check-in queue, or do I? That's what this lady at the counter deemed. She just looked at me, and said "Queue" - my attempts at explaining how that might be unnecessary since I have already done the check-in, and don't have a baggage, were quickly cut short with a derisive snort meaning I am wasting her precious time. So, of I went behind the half hour long queue - there were just two counters open, with no sight of any other personnel from Air India
Innocent lady: sir you have already checked-in
Me: <with sparkle of acknowledgement in my eyes> Yes!!
Innocent lady: And you don't have anything to check in
Me: <ebullient at the prospect of having met my kindred soul> YES!
Innocent lady: <a vaguely puzzled look>
Me: .. and this wonderful lady in the count next to you, still thought I should stand for half hour to get the pass printed. Isn't this wasting everyone's time?
Innocent lady: Sorry sir,,,
Now, doubly happy, having yet made it to the security with more than an hour to spare for the 11 am flight, and having found a kindred soul, I breezed past the security with a spring in my step, that led me hurtling straight to the only board with a flight schedule in a 2-acre airport. And here is what I see >>
So, my entreaties to no avail, I settled for a bottle of water and some biscuits from a small outlet, and awaited the hour when the Air India staff would make their appearance. I wasn't to be denied that for long, however. After a half hour I could hear some animated conversation about someone demanding to leave the airport and not come back - something told me the Air India staff had arrived. So off I went - got talking to them. And slowly they relented and used some loophole to get me past the security, back to the check-in area. Once again, I felt all was well with the world, as I dashed off to sate my epicurean needs. I dashed and dashed.. and so were my hopes. For I was soon to realize that Chennai International airport was absolutely unique, in that it does't have a single restaurant! There were a couple of lounges for the various flight alliances, which wouldn't let me in, if I wasn't flying one of their airlines. Air India wasn't part of any - and now I am somehow less uncertain why that might be the case (there is rumor that Air India has been courting the Star Alliance with gusto, which I hope to dear God doesn't go any where). The jugaad in me managed to get an hours waiting time at one of lounges with a kind matre'd and a frequent flyer card. And once again I was beginning to regain my bonhomie for the Air India brethren.
So, close to noon, I decided to find my way back to the security and get ready to board the flight at 12:30. Security cleared and men's room visited I look for some indication on that lone schedule announcement screen for the gate number of the flight am supposed to board. A long hard stare returned a blank, nevertheless. So I waited for a while, sauntered around the 2-acre airport, and came back to the same spot with five minutes to spare for the flight time. Surely, there must be the gate number now. And surely, there wasn't. Well, the eyes sought out for people resembling Air India staff to ask why. And all I could see were a sea of humanity who seem to be lost and mildly agitated. 12:30 came and passed, and I was getting restless as usual, and asked some random strangers if they knew anything off the Mumbai flight and were they traveling in it, by chance. As chance would have it, they all were, like me. And they all were confused, like me - no one had a clue when the flight was to depart. One young man said in completely amusement, that he has in the past ten minutes heard completely confident accounts of how the flight was going to start in 5 minutes to five hours.
Now, the spring in my step lost a tad bit of what makes the springs springy. I felt compelled to find some resting space, recharge my iPad, and make a few calls and somehow distract myself till i get some official to announce of the real scene. Again, I wasn't to wait too long. Soon, there was the refreshing voice of an Air India staff that very apologetically announced that they were very sorry for the delay, which occurred due to "some technical reason", and now the flight was to start at 1330hours. Great - now we have an official time. And the delay was but for 2.5 hours from the original schedule. Not so bad was it.
Not it wasn't.. back then. Soon it would be.
1:30 came and went away, as sure as they always do. And no news of the impending departure. SOon there was another announcement, that some snacks being served. Surely, after the snacks the stewards would be refreshed to fly?
Well, tea and snack done, another announcement came, indeed - 1:30pm on the clock - 4.5 hours of wait done and the announcement chimed, that AI 343 is cancelled. Chaos ensued, as its wont to happen. The enraged and the impatient and those who just wished to remind the world of their stentorian voice, pounced on the two Air India personnel. An hour of pummeling them. Now asking they for a reschedule, now for a refund, and sometimes for a connecting flight refund. One person had a bus to catch after reaching Mumbai - and the AI personnel solemnly answered him that the bus was beyond her jurisdiction. Then there were requests for a five-star dinner and stay… a wonderfully insightful time to understand the various things people want when denied a timely travel.
So, here I am having been promised that there would be another flight arranged for us at 1800 hours - and this reminded by the check-in personnel, who looked me in the eye and read out what was on her screen - "See, Its 3:30 pm now. And my system shows your departure time is 1800 hours. If this gets postponed again, don't blame the check-in counter, ok"
No lady. I won't. For I just count myself incredibly lucky and totally take it as my own act of undefeated positivity that makes me come back and book a ticket with Air India!