Part 1 – Indian Airlines, outstanding incompetence.
When I land in New Delhi from Mumbai, it is as if the pilot must have made a mistake and landed at Kuwait or Dubai airport instead. But no, this is Delhi all right, no artificial glitter or shiny marble floors where you can almost see your jetlagged face or evaporated lip gloss here. When GoAir cabin crew had on landing announced outside temperature is 48 Celsius, I did not realize how hot that could be, Fahrenheit being more established for me; that is 118F!!! It feels I have opened an oven door and is difficult to breathe, even. Thankfully, the airport terminal is nicely cool; I console myself I am here for a few hours only anyway; my Indian Airline flight to Kabul is only about 2 hours away.
IC843 to Kabul is announced almost on time and we go through motions of a secondary security check by bored security men; mine waves me through without even opening my bag. When everybody is on board, I quickly jump seats to an empty bulkhead aisle seat; more legroom. 12:35 passes and I look forward to us taking off; the air-condition will kick in and I am hungry. But nothing happens and the pumped cool air becomes increasingly unfriendly warmer. After about an hour, the pilot comes alive and says there is a “slight” technical problem and we are “slightly” delayed. Another 30 minutes pass, babies begin wailing, children start fretting and adults begin conversing in an increasingly loud tenor. The man across from me begins to pick his nose, tentatively at first and then in earnest, positioning his face at every angle to get maximum leverage; I look away.
As I am seated in the first row after business class, I get to hear snippets of what happens in business class and all activity outside the cockpit further up. I learn the Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan is onboard, with a group of 6 bodyguards. There is constant talk of a strike by the lethargic and non-responding airhostesses but I do not fathom what this means. 2 hours after departure time, the technical problem is apparently fixed as doors shut and the aircraft slowly limps towards an active runway. Once lined up on the active runway, the engines rev up nicely, the aircraft strains forward for release when abruptly, the pilot eases takeoff thrust and the bird idles once more; we quickly taxi back towards a parking bay.
Tempers are now flying, mine included, although I am very relieved that the pilot aborted flight if the aircraft was not air worthy. Apparently, word is circulating that IC843 was cancelled yesterday for the same “technical” reason and non Delhi passengers were accommodated in some shabby hotel near the airport. Few of these passengers, Afghani teenagers, now storm forward and demand to be taken off an ailing aircraft, they have had enough. There is much argument by the door but I cannot make out what is said. The dissenters troop back to their seats after a while, grimfaced; they were denied permission to disembark. So we sit and wait, and wait and wait but no word from anyone regarding future plans. Babies begin wailing, children start fretting, there is loud talk about how unfairly Indian Airlines treat their customers; the guy across from me resumes snot picking.
I may have earlier mentioned in my prior blogs that I am, by nature, quite an impatient person, always in hurry. I cannot just sit still, without knowing I have no other choice. However, CAI and working in Afghanistan has forced me to accept the virtue of patience; up to a limit. When there is no communication from IA crew again the next 30 minutes, it is I that storm past the curtain barrier that divides business from cattle class. I round up on an aging stewardess with a sagging gut protruding through standard IA saree uniform flipping through a filmy magazine; our conversation goes something like this:
Madam, would you please care to tell me what is going on? She reluctantly lifts heavy makeup coated eyelids towards me and looks me up and down; is not impressed, for her attention reverts back to the magazine. Technical snag, she rasps, apne seat pe beth jao (return to your seat and sit down). My mind snaps and I see bloody red. Before the old cow can lift another page, I step forward and slap my hand on the magazine. She jumps, 2 other stewardesses lolling around jump, the ambassador sitting nearby probably jumps. I am asking you a question, ma’am, and you ignore me with this outrageous attitude of yours? We have been holed up in this aircraft now for 3 hours and all you can tell us there is a technical snag? It is hot in here, there are children and babies here, you have not offered us any food, not even water, is this the best IA can do? What do you think, we are cattle for you?
There is stunned silence for a while; I wait to be arrested for my action but most people in business class nod their heads and mummer their agreement with my assertion; this probably saves me. A much younger airhostess with a much firmer gut approaches me and tries to calm me down. Sir, we understand your discomfort but we cannot do anything. It is in the hands of operations, they make all decisions, you will have to ask them. And where are the operations people, I demand. We don’t know. Who knows where they are? We don’t know. Is this flight cancelled? We don’t know. When will you know? We don’t know. When will we be let go from the aircraft? We don’t know. Where is the captain? Uh, we don’t know.
I know when I am defeated so head back to my seat with my tail between my legs and sit down, fuming. But then, only about 5 minutes later, we are ordered off the aircraft and returned to the terminal on a bus. There is another technical snag however. All of us have been processed by immigration as having left the country so there is much confusion between operations and immigration with some shouting between them while we toast and profusely sweat outside terminal doors. It takes a woman officer to point out that there are babies and young children in the crowd that may be medically compromised due to the heat before the doors swish open and we enter the blissful cool inside of the airport terminal.
After much arguments, discussions, an hour and an almost fistfight later, IA cancels flight 843 to Kabul for the 2nd time in so many days; I begin to worry much. I have a non cancellable chartered flight at 7AM tomorrow morning from Kabul to YawKawlang and a drive to Sulej for a wedding of 59 poor couples sponsored by donors of CAI. I frantically call up Wasi in Kabul; as practical and pragmatic as any Afghan can be, he tells me I will not be able to attend the wedding; Basheer will represent CAI. He also asks me to get mentally prepared for an 18 hour drive to YawKawlang the day after (more on this escapade in later parts of this blog). We are processed by immigration quite efficiently; our exit stamp is cancelled and we end up in the customs holding area where another argument between IA and customs ensue. Customs wants us all removed while IA pleads there is no other place they can take us.
There is total mayhem when it is learnt that IA staff have gone on countrywide strike and we are abandoned; thankfully, senior IA staff take over and begin a laborious task of assigning non Delhi residents a hotel room for the night. Tomorrow is Wednesday, the only day of week when IA does not have services to Kabul, but that is insignificant; the strike worries me more. An agreement is struck whereby KAM Air (a local Afghan airline not certified by IATA) will take about 52 of us to Kabul tomorrow. And what about the rest? The senior IA manager I talk to can only shrug his thin shoulders; I want to strangle him until he consults his list and assures me I am one of those that have been assigned a place on KAM Air. Phew!
We wait some more; it is not until 7PM, six and a half hours from scheduled departure that I get a seat in an oppressively hot bus for a ride to our hotel. Not only is the bus overcrowded with sweaty passengers, the heavy luggage we have brought up is strewn around wherever there is place. The bus is incredibly hot, with a lot of people, exhausted children and reeks of body odor and unwashed bodies. I sweat and sweat and sweat some more. When we arrive at the hotel, I am startled to see a patch of dampness on the front of my trousers, like some map of a continent on an atlas; for a split second, I am horrified I may have soiled myself, but it is just sweat.
I am assigned a reasonable room with an unbelievable surprise; a treadmill! I get temporarily exited. It works but is useless with power cuts every 10 minutes or so. I was liable to kill myself using it with sudden stops at my running speed of 6 mph. I have a shower, eat dinner and fall asleep but power cuts and the generator kicking in every so often makes resting difficult. The next morning, I make a snap decision. There is a Pamir Air flight that afternoon; I decide to cancel the IA ticket and rebook on Pamir. I am not sure how long the strike will last and I am sure no other airline can match IA’s incompetence.
Listen to me IA, it may not make too much of a difference to you, but I will never (I know you should never say never), never, ever fly you again.
I reach Kabul later that day incident free.
To be continued…