Saturday, April 10, 2010

One night at the airport

Mumbai International Airport: It was decided that one of us would have to bridge the distance between us until we start our lives together. And this was the start of it. I was in the airport before 5 pm for my 6.40 pm flight to Chennai. A little early by normal standards but way less than the two to three hour buffer that my father keeps while travelling. Then proceeded to do the formalities of check-in: one duffel bag to check-in and one knapsack as cabin baggage. Once through with the security check I took out ‘50 Great American Short Stories’ and started to read. It was 5.20 pm.

Air India Express (AIX) Flight - IX 206: It’s an hour and a half flight to Chennai but by the time I got into the flight I had spent almost the same amount of time in the airport. Once inside the plane it was the usual cacophony: cabin luggage not fitting the overheard lockers, people blocking the aisle and ‘you are on MY seat’ problems. But there was one other hitch; it seemed the air conditioning was not working and it was getting pretty hot inside. Frequent requests to the cabin crew, about air-conditioning, went unattended. When the doors closed and we started taxing towards the runway things became pretty unbearable. People started yelling for water bottles and the commotion took the shape of frenzy. The only response the crew gave was that things would become normal once the engines started. I thought that it was some sort of cost cutting initiative, to switch on the air-conditioning only after the plane is air-borne, and it made sense because of the increasing time between getting on-board, taxing to the runway and getting air-borne. Seeing the nonchalance of the cabin crew a few people went and started banging on the cockpit door. After sometime the captain, in a heavy Chinese accent, said that he would be taking the plane back to the parking bay to let the technicians have a look at the issue. This was by no means an end to the problem but just a hog wash, by an airline which did not do the basic pre-flight checks to see that the amenities were up and running. It was 08.00 pm.

Mumbai International Airport, again: We deplaned and were taken back to the airport. Once inside, an airline staff told us that we were to report at Gate 7. I thought it was our lucky day, to report to another gate so soon, thinking that we were going to step into another plane. But none of that happened, because we were told by another airline staffer at Gate 7 that the diagnosis of the problem is going to take some time and those who want to get refunds should come forward. This enraged a lot of passengers because if one wants to buy a ticket now, the price would be exponentially higher than the refund that one would get. We collectively decided that none of us want refunds but just need another flight to go to Chennai. The airline representative started the ‘we are speaking to the management’ sly and said that it would take some time for them to reach a decision. We were asked to move into the waiting area and than wait. It was 09.00 pm.

IPL & KFC: I was relieved to see that a lot of the eating joints in the lounge area were telecasting the IPL matches. I settled on one of the seats watching the DC and KKR match. Not knowing where my next meal would come from, though AIX gives you free in-flight meals we expected them first to give us a flight, I started scanning the options available: Pizza Hut, KFC, Noodles and Indian Paradise. I paid for and bought a veggie burger and fries from KFC. But as luck would have it and it was sure an unlucky day, even before I took a bite into the burger there was an announcement that the IX 206 passengers can have meals from Indian Paradise, courtesy AIX. No sooner than the announcement ended there was a multitude of hundred rushing to the Indian Paradise counter; to form a queue and being civilized be damned. I merrily munched on my burger, waiting for the queue to abate and then got hold of the free meal as well: one coleslaw sandwich, a small packet of potato chips, a bottle of water and a small tetra pack of mango juice. It was 10.30 pm.

Gate 4: With the tummy full and the IPL match coming to an end people remembered that they need to reach Chennai. We started looking around and were told that there would be flight leaving at 11 pm. The scene at Gate 4 was hysterical. There were four women, from our flight, holding the boarding gate shut, not allowing passengers from other flights, to go to their aircrafts. They were shouting that unless we get a flight to Chennai no other passenger would be allowed to board a flight. Crowding around them were the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnels, but doing nothing because they didn’t had a female member with them. Standing just behind them, in a corner, were the AIX staff, a man and a female, with a phone in their hand, claiming that they are trying to reach to their higher officials and that someone is on the way to resolve the impasse. Shouting on them were the male passengers from our flight, who were angry that the promised flight at 11 pm was nowhere to be seen. There was a lot of yelling happening, some choicest swearing and a few others were trying to lay their hands on the AIX staff. Yours truly also got into the melee and gave a piece of his mind to the AIX staff. Even after three hours of reporting the problem if no responsible AIX representative was available on the ground then it shows the indifference of the carrier. There was constant agitation from a group of people who were to report for an interview and others who were to attend a marriage the next day. It was 11.30 pm.

Trouble: Then around midnight another AIX staff arrived at the counter and he announced that the flying crew had exhausted their stipulated flying hours for the day and that fresh crew needs to be brought in, earlier than their roster, to attend to this situation. When he told that the new crew would only arrive by 2.30 am all hell broke loose. One burly man, with an innocent face, who was hitherto silent, cornered the AIX staff and started menacingly shoving him. The CISF personnels then leapt on him and there was a fist fight. The man took four CISF men in his arms, including their senior officer, and swayed them around without a sweat. Seeing this more CISF men, some with guns drawn, jumped in and brought him to the ground and started manhandling the guy. The onlookers, including yours truly, who couldn’t grasp the flash fight, then jumped in to separate the CISF men and the burly man. The man, was missing his shirt, had taken a few blows and showed bruises all over. An eerie silence filled the room signaling that the equation had changed suddenly. The CISF men, who were holding on to their nerves so far, grew belligerent now and all the unruly passengers abruptly calmed down. The CISF men wanted to arrest the man and teach him a lesson. But we bundled the man to a corner and kept him away from the force. It was 12.45 pm.

More trouble: A bald CISF man came and told me that I should watch out because I was the next one to be taken down. He then asked me my name which I dismissed with a shrug. The cloud of anxiety started looming over. The burly man was sitting in the waiting lounge and was attended by the other passengers. His injuries didn’t seem grave. With the fear of arrest looming over, other passengers took the guy and started to move him out of the airport exit. But because this was the international airport there was the extra layer of immigration check and even otherwise an airport is not like the bus station where one can come and go as willed. He was stopped and again surrounded by the CISF men. The other passengers then pleaded that it was just a ‘heat of the moment’ action by the person and they should let it go. But because one of their seniors had got the boot, the CISF were not ready to be easy on the guy; they wanted to teach him a hard lesson. So with no flight and no exit we were virtually stuck. And yours truly being marked out started to move away from the crowd and settled at a distance to start reading the book again. It was 1.45 am.

Finally, light, Eureka!: But my mind was not on the book and the adrenaline was pumping. So looking out for next options I came across a courteous AIX female staff, the same one from Gate 4, who was explaining some passengers that how things were not in her or her colleague’s hands and that one would not achieve anything by man handling them. She then offered to get us off loaded from the flight and advised us to take another flight to our destinations or whatever we wished to do. We leapt on the thin string that fate offered us and followed her. We gave back our boarding cards, gave the details of our checked-in baggage and got escorted towards the airport duty manager’s cabin. There we found that four other passengers from our flight had already taken the exit route but they were waiting for the bags to be brought back from the plane. The duty manager arrived and told us that it would take a little more time to retrieve our bags from the belly of the plane because it is a tedious and manual process to search for bags based on their tags. In the interim we were also told that the plane would leave at 2.30 am to Chennai so why retrieve the bags. But we just ignored it as one of their standard operating procedure (read: lying). Another 45 minutes wait and the bags arrived. There it was, the light at the end of the tunnel. It was 2.30 pm.

The Great Escape: A few more register entries and, after the endorsement from the duty manager that we opted to be offloaded because of delay in flight, we were out of the airport. But we still had to get a refund for our tickets. I got mine from so called up their toll free number and came to know that I need to get a form filled from the AIX ticketing counter about the off loading and their endorsement thereof. Went to the AIX ticketing counter and was told that it was not an AIX counter and that the only one is at Nariman Point. To top it there was no one you could reach to at AIX, on phone, at that time of the day. My frustration was reaching new heights but I reminded myself of the mess I was already in and therefore wanted nothing else but to reach Chennai somehow. I then hired a rick and made my way towards the Mumbai domestic airport. The AIX counter was closed as if they were most profitable company on the planet and were resting on their laurels when all others: Jet airways, Indigo, GoAir were burning their mid night oil. I was sure the ruckus today would be forgotten, like the hundreds before, and would do nothing to even ruffle the features of this sleeping giant. Luckily Spicejet had a Chennai flight at 6.10 am and I virtually grabbed it. As I entered the airport, I thanked the powers above to getting me out of the cauldron and wishing for a safe and easy flight ahead. But there was still two hours left for me to board my next flight, the second one in a single night, from the same city. It was 4.10 am.


The quirk said...

And for me the world ended for sometime. I thought the universe conspired to separate us :(

Anonymous said...

a very normal day for AIX.

p.s.- please don't get into troubles.