It’s a long way to Tipperary…
Saturday Sep 6, 2014 around 6:00 am Indian Standard Time
As Air India 952 touched down at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport from Dubai, I felt relieved. Less than 24 hours ago I was sitting at the Gate in Orlando in a Delta 757 that was already 75 minutes delayed. Another 30 mins and I’d have missed my Atlanta – Dubai connection and cut short my 7 day visit by a day.
It has been nearly 20 years since I flew Air India. I had decent memories of my last AI flight, back in 1995 when I flew from JFK-HYD. Food was decent. Times were kept. A pretty flight attendant sitting in the jump seat in front of us giving us a run down of how desi passengers were mostly to blame for Air India’s reputation (“they don’t use the button to call us, some people try to touch us, they don’t flush toilets, they get drunk”). When they announced boarding at Gate C2 in Dubai, I expected them to call the Executive Class passengers in first. Given there were only about 20 Business Class seats on the A320 I was hoping for an easy boarding. Instead, they called for everyone to board. The typical desi frenzy broke out. Everybody trying to rush into the aircraft. That’s when you get the first taste of systematic chaos that is India. Fortunately I found my way in before most others. The moment they saw 2A on the boarding pass the gate agent smiled, and said “you can go in sir”
3 passengers in the Executive Class. Yes – 3. The portly Flight Attendant was pleasantly surprised when I wished him on entering the aircraft. He barely managed to mumble back “Good Morning”. I expected to be asked “Can I get something to drink?” immediately after sitting. Instead, they allowed about 50 passengers before the young man came and asked “Will you eat dinner sir? We have veg and non-veg” After confirming he meant after take off, I chose the orange juice from his tray of drinks.
Boarding door closed at 12:50am. Wow, on time departure! Clearly I was in luck! As we taxied towards takeoff, a lady FA walked around making sure we all had our seat belts strapped on. She has got to be the most unpleasant FA ever. She actually had a frown on her face. Sort of like “why the heck are you on my plane?” Once she figured I was from the US her expression and demeanor both changed. She became more respectful and actually managed to smile on a couple of occasions. Uncle Sam’s charm is universal!
The male FA came around after we reached cruising altitude and asked me what I wanted to drink. When asked what they had he lowered his voice and said “we have whiskey, rum, beer and wine” – sounding like he was letting us in on a secret. I chose Sula, the Indian red. I also chose to eat dinner – chicken. They served the wine and waited inordinately to serve dinner. Turns out Indian passengers like to finish the drinks and then eat dinner. The food was tasty and plentiful. I was famished having only airline food in the past 24 hours cutting across 9 time zones. I could eat idli if they served it cold on that flight.
I was the first one out of the aircraft at RGIA. I was met with 3 people at the end of the jetway. The guy rudely stopped me in my tracks and asked for my boarding pass. See, AI 952 is actually Dubai to Vishakapatnam route, with a 40 min stop over in Hyderabad. At HYD they want to make sure no VTZ passengers accidentally (or intentionally) get off. I wish though that they had announced BEFORE taking off to keep our boarding passes handy. I spent an excruciating 90 seconds fidgeting around my pockets trying to produce the runaway boarding pass. Found it eventually and still made it first out into the immigration area.
At 6:15am with hardly any expected international arrivals, the immigration officials were seen dozing off at their desks – literally. As I made my way to the area, one alert officer realized there were arriving passengers and waved me to his desk. I produced my US passport and PIO card while wishing him a very good morning. At that point he realized I was a foreign national and asked me to fill out an immigration form. Yeah – right there. Wouldn’t it have been nice if they gave us those forms in the plane and asked us to have them ready when we get to the desk? Convenience is taboo in this country.
As I walked out of the hall post immigration, I was stopped and asked to show the stamp and my boarding pass. I wondered why they wanted the boarding pass at that point. Luckily I had it tucked away in one of the pages in the passport. He saluted me and smiled a sheepish smile – the standard Indian method for seeking ‘bakshish’. I ignored. Bakshish for doing his job and checking if my passport had been stamped? No thank you! I slowly made my way to the baggage claim area. After making the customary “I have reached safely” and “I have arrived safely” phone calls respectively I decided to take a bio break. The attendant at the entrance to the men’s room did the bakshish salute as I parked my trolley. Seriously… bakshish for what? Watching me pee?
My two 60 lb suitcases arrived fairly quickly, making me the first to advance to the customs area. As I approached the scanner, in typical desi fashion this dude cut me off and plonked his carton of whatever on to the conveyor belt. The ensuing drama was worth watching. The customs officer (why are they all in plainclothes anyway?) asked – quite politely I might add – the man to unload even his wallet into the scanner. And the guy simply stood there staring, refusing to part with his beloved wallet. The officer got suspicious and said out loud “kuch hai kya purse mein?”. I am patiently waiting behind while the officer goaded and the man refused. Then the guy behind me shouts “kuch nahin hota mian… daal do purse… aage jaake us taraf se nikalta… kahin nahin jaata”. After about 4 mins I got impatient, unloaded my suitcases, picked them up on the other side and headed out, only to be stopped by another khaki wearing officer asking to check my passport and boarding card. OK that’s the third time they asked me for the boarding card. As I showed him the page with the immigration stamp he gave me the bakshish smile and said “kuch tho bhi do saab”. Again, the guy expected to be given bakshish for doing his job and checking my credentials one last time before I head out of the airport. I SMHed (learned that acronym recently. For the uninitiated, it stands for Shaking My Head) and walked purposefully towards the exit.
The last thoughts as I made my way out was how we are missing doing the little things right in India. Good airline with fairly new aircraft and a perfect, on time departure. But horribly unfriendly staff. Great food but no follow up, completely oblivious to international food habits. No immigration cards in the aircraft, or on arrival at the gate, or even a sign that says “Foreign Nationals – Please Fill Immigration Card HERE”. No heads up about keeping the boarding card handy. That bakshish smile wherever you go. The single conveyor belt for customs scanning for a 150 passenger aircraft. What will they do when a 747 arrives? How long will that line be? There are so many good things happening in this country. But to go from good to great, it’s the little things that matter.
I walked into the air that I grew up breathing, and for the first time ever I was first out of the aircraft, first out of immigration and first out of customs. Feels good to be home!