Wednesday, June 25, 2008

AIR INDIA WOULD HAVE KEPT ME SINGLE

I was delighted to hear Praful Patel, the Civil Aviation Minister say that Air India either needs to perform or perish. Personal experience suggests it is successfully doing the latter already.

My husband and I were alone in a hotel room in Frankfurt four days before our wedding in India. But we weren’t feeling at all romantic. No…it’s not what you think. We were in love and wanted to marry. The problem was how do we get there? How to get home?

Both of us were students in the U.S and followed the “cheap works best” approach to flying. So, when Air India offered us the lowest fares to Mumbai, we took it. Zero in-flight entertainment, robotic air-hostesses and wailing babies cannot deter two people bent on getting hitched. Despite dealing with rude staff, we boarded a sickly yellow Air India Boeing 747 from O’Hare International Airport, Chicago, with the proverbial song on the lip. In a few days we would wear weighty clothes and ponderous garlands, exchange some solemn vows and walk away into the sunset to live happily ever after.

Little did we realize that our path was littered with obstacles. We weren’t supposed to be populating hotel rooms on the way there and how it all came to be is a story of betrayal by our embarrassing national bird, Air India. I want to kick the protruding backside of the smiling maharaja when I see one.

There was a happy hum on board our flight from Chicago where it all began. Fellow Indians were pinching the cheeks of children and enquiring about their names and health. An English movie of grainy print played on a single giant screen at the front of the aircraft. It was extracted no doubt from a Hollywood archive shelf marked ‘Ancient’. Not in the mood for it, I would’ve certainly finished ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ instead, except that my panel lights didn’t work. Neither did my husbands and neither did his neighbours’. We had both carried only books to entertain ourselves and therefore had nothing to do. Everyone slept, but like alert owls we sat quietly in the dark. Oblivious to the impending food crisis I grumbled about the service instead of just being thankful for meals at least.

A few hours and much wakefulness later the lights came on and one small but tough croissant was placed before us. The hungry and tired don’t fuss about such things and we ate our “breakfast” content with the thought that we would soon land in Frankfurt for two hours, stretch our legs and then sleep all the way to Mumbai. From there my husband would fly home to Calcutta and me to Chennai to attend my first ‘ladies-only’ function on the 24th of December. I had budgeted three days of R and R because brides need that.

But Air India had other plans. They usually do.

We were asked to disembark at Frankfurt and once without, informed casually that two of the engines had failed while landing. Surely, they needed time to repair them and so if passengers would be considerate enough to wait for two more hours things would be set in order and we would be on our way again.

Now, my husband is a business consultant, which means, he has been dodged and duped by airlines all his working life and doesn’t buy these “slight delays” or “technical snags”. So when he heard the words “engine failure” his heart started a downward descent.

But since there was nothing we could do about the vital organs of an ageing 747 we waited patiently in the lousy Frankfurt airport. It was uncomfortably cold, uncarpeted, overcrowded and under-seated and the most exciting food available was cheese toast. Four hours became six, six became ten and ten became fourteen. We should have been in the motherland by then but were stuck instead in the fatherland. And, I, the bride, deprived of sleep and good news, grew older.

Those with American passports had long been allowed to leave for a comfortable hotel while we went about the airport like IDPs. Meanwhile the smiling maharaja became the silent maharaja. There were simply no updates or announcements!

Finally, a little before midnight, rumour circulated that Air India was collecting passports to get visas because the plane of our dreams was grounded. By then my husband and I were gummy-eyed, sleepless, unfresh and angry. Parents, aunts and cousins back home were frantic. Flights to anywhere in December are packed and to India, forget it you must be kidding. How were we going to get home? The only thing available was first class on Lufthansa – 10,000 dollars for both of us. Nope. We’d just have to stay single.

Air India wasn’t saying anything. They were about to put us up in a hotel and my husband was sure that an engine failure basically meant - get a different plane. Would Air India do that? When would they do it? More importantly, I would have no time to go through my fittings, beauty sleep, bridal pampering, and my round of personal invitations. The salad had been tossed up and was falling to the floor.

With heavy feet we reached the hotel and with heavier hearts we went to bed but not without making a plan. We decided we would sleep for just a few hours and get to the airport before all the other passengers. Everyone would be trying to get their tickets written over so we needed to be first in the queue at the AI counter.

The next morning, the restaurant downstairs was full of cheerful chatter. This unexpected German holiday was quite a nice surprise for some. But I thrust a bun with poppy seeds into my bag and off we went to the airport.

An hour after waiting at the Air India counter a German lady finally appeared. We told her our story stressing that a union was at stake. She was a stern sort and didn’t say much. But suddenly she produced two tickets on Kuwait Airways that would take us to Mumbai but with a layover in Kuwait. That wasn’t good enough. We wanted to fly straight home. What if we got stuck in Kuwait? By then she saw how anxious we were and the cockles of her heart began to warm-up a little. Hammering away at her keyboard she scanned for seats. And voila! A few minutes later she produced two direct tickets on Lufthansa to Calcutta! Wow! Hurray! But wait, what about our four bags full of wedding stuff?

Oh.

By way of a joke she said, “I’ll try and get them out but I hope your wedding dress is not in there.” Ha. Ha. My husbands stuff was but what good is a wedding suit if it makes you miss your wedding? So we ditched our bags, hoping they would come on the Air India flight, whenever, and sprinted across the confusing Frankfurt airport to reach the Lufthansa counter to get our seats confirmed. We realized that we had under-reported our wedding story. We had to use it to full effect now. We repeated it to the young blonde at the Lufthansa counter who was lovely and sympathetic. But she had bad news. My husband was confirmed. I was not.

We took the chance and raced to the gate where passengers were boarding for Calcutta. Seconds before the gate closed and the last confirmed passengers had boarded, an efficient German lady finally put us through. We couldn’t believe it. We were finally going home! We would attend our wedding after all! We looked terrible, we hadn’t changed our clothes in 48 hours and our bags were left behind. But it didn’t matter. We collapsed into clean seats in a fresh white plane, looked at each other and burst out laughing.

We landed in Calcutta like a set of beggars without any possessions except each other. But it was alright because we still had a beautiful, fun wedding. We made it in time and took our solemn vows. One of them is to never fly Air India.

Published on the ndtv.com website.

5 comments:

Sathej said...

What an account! :) Well, would have been a nightmarish time indeed. Definitely not a fine preparation for a wedding. And looks like you did underplay the wedding bit :) Having said that, you know what, atleast the 'rickety' old plane with the failed engines made it safely to Frankfurt. An unplanned holiday in Frankfurt with hardly any sleep and all that would have been quite disconcerting.
On a more serious note, 'pathetic' is the word for AI. Now, it seems they have taken strong exception to the Minister's remark. In the days when even a Chennai-Bombay flight has in-flight entertainment,it beats me as to how they can't even have panel lights on in an International Flight!! Service, if it can be called that, is horrifyingly abysmal.
Anyway, on the pleasant side, good that you had a nice wedding :) and that, with interesting vows. And hope you did get the baggages after all.
Sathej
PS : Nice narration of a not-so-nice experience. Well written :)

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

Oh, Alaphia, what an ordeal! The only thing that would have comforted you would have been that at least you were together.

And then, the wedding did go off well, did it not. Seeing you at the Chennai reception, I would never have thought that just a week ago you had been through all this.

Alaphia said...

Thanks Sathej! :)

mitokondrion said...

such a well-written account of such an unfortunate incident...

Agree with raji, you were together which is certainly better than one of u caught alone. That's happened to me albeit not enroute to a wedding, but with loved ones I hadn't met in two years on the other end all the same...
ever since, I've ensured I save up annually for one expensive yet totally-worth-it flight home.

Alaphia said...

hey mito
thanks. paying a few hundreds more.. even many hundreds more is well worth.