Some incidents are amusing in hindsight but distressing while you are going through them. Like my trip last month to Kandla, Gujarat, via Mumbai. I thought I was dreadfully late for the Air India flight which was to leave Delhi at 11pm for Mumbai. As I nearly fell upon the counter after doing an airport marathon through Terminal 3, the lady smiled and said the flight would leave at 3am. Four straight hours of delay.
Next morning at 5am in Mumbai, I got off at the international terminal. I had 25 minutes before the counter closed for the Kingfisher flight to Kandla. As a veteran of such challenges, I did a dramatic movie-style sprint to the domestic terminal with a cabbie who drove like the wind. Quite unnecessary, it turned out. The flight was delayed by five hours.
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Time to return. The Kandla-Mumbai 8am Kingfisher flight was delayed in a way in which the onward flight to Delhi would be impossible to catch. In what I thought was a smart move, I decided to travel by road for five hours, from Kandla to Ahmedabad and catch a direct to Delhi. As soon as I reached, I found that the 12.40pm Indigo flight on which I was booked, would not leave till 5.30pm. Five criminal hours of wastage in Ahmedabad airport with its dirty loos and lone bookshop.
That’s about 14 hours of delay on one round trip.
Which is why in a passenger-friendly move, since August this year, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has started tracking and sharing statistics publicly about flight performance. As of November 2010, 23% of all domestic flights were delayed. One in every four flights. A staggering 54% of the delays have been due to a reason termed “reactionary”, which means a reaction to a situation that prompts the airline to delay the flight. That situation isn’t weather, which is the only non-manmade, out-of-our-control reason in that list and is responsible for only 9% of the delays. Other main reasons are delays caused by flight operations and crew (9%), airport authorities (7%) and issues of air traffic flow management (5%). Technical issues and aircraft and ramp handling form 5%.
Since August, the DGCA has also ordered airlines to compensate passengers whose flights have been delayed by more than two hours or cancelled. Passengers can claim Rs 2,000-4,000, depending on the length of the flight. In addition, there is a choice between refund of the ticket price, taking an alternate flight or even an alternate mode of transportation (moffusil bus? bullock cart?) to the destination, even at a later date. Naturally, none of this is applicable in case delays are due to weather, security or other circumstances beyond the airline’s control. Food and hotel accommodation, when required, is mandatory.
Obviously none of the passengers I was stranded with in Ahmedabad last month had any clue about this rule. All they did was hop about in airport rage. There were people who teamed up and raised slogans against Indigo. Some of us in righteous indignation demanded a refund (oblivious that it was our right). The airline was willing to give it, but all the other flights were anyway leaving around the same time, and buying last-minute tickets for them would be much costlier. So no one took a refund. Food was arranged, albeit very late and in a manner so shoddy that a couple of passengers returned the coupons, feeling insulted that they had to run around from counter to restaurant for a single meal.
So the DGCA’s initiative is empowering to hitherto much-abused, stranded passengers.
Yet, as far as I am concerned, the sheer stress of catching a flight has made me dread them. There must be a term for the aeroplane fright which is caused, not by fear of flying, but by the whole rigmarole involved—reaching an hour earlier, going through multiple security checks, engaging with various airport staff about things such as “why have you not stamped your hand baggage tag”, “only middle seats available”, “your check-in baggage is a bit heavier”, “put your mobile phone in the tray”, sitting in the ergonomically unfriendly seat, breathing stale air, buying unhealthy food and unable to sleep due to constant interruptions by the crew.
Add to that, delayed flights which require you to bide time in airports, reschedule your activities, miss meetings or cut time with loved ones. The unavoidable blight of air travel in India.
It’s enough to make me switch to trains whenever I can. I find it overall more pleasant to take a Rajdhani from Delhi to Mumbai than take a flight. The train leaves at 4.30 in the evening and reaches at 8.30 the next morning. One can get into the train at 4.20 if one wants to. The food supply is constant and arguably as good or bad as airline food. You read, you watch rural India by night and stretch out completely to sleep. Next morning, you have the option of alighting at Borivali, Dadar, CST or Central, depending on where you are headed. Plus its’s half the cost. A highest class ticket in the Mumbai Rajdhani costs Rs 3,300 while an economy air ticket for the sector costs about Rs 6,000. Not that the Rajdhani has a sterling record of punctuality. But when you pay double, a one-hour delay pinches double. Besides, the whole point about taking a flight is the child-like assumption that we all have, that planes are a fast mode of transport which bring people to destinations on time. The dissonance is considerable when that doesn’t happen.
Vandana Vasudevan writes stories of mass urban consumer experiences. She is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and currently works with HT Media Ltd.