A bitter taste of India

I’ve never been to India, though that’s an omission I plan to put right next year. With any luck, the experience will be a big improvement on an Air India flight with a transfer in Delhi which is how we returned to Sri Lanka earlier this month.

Air India use the pack-‘em-in Dreamliners on the Heathrow to Delhi route which was not a good start. It got worse. The cabin crew were the most surly lot you could imagine. The airline had cocked up our seats and despite our having written proof of the seat numbers we’d paid for they put us in separate seats miles apart and the crew refused to take any responsibility for resolving the problem. “I don’t know anything about this” seemed to be their excuse for inaction. Only when Sally threatened a bout of projectile vomiting due to her fear of flying if she couldn’t sit next to me[1] did another passenger kindly (or possibly in terror) offer to give up his aisle seat so we could sit together.

When we struggled off at Delhi the cabin crew turned their backs on the passengers and talked to one another. I know all this “Have a nice day” stuff is just tosh but believe me, you miss it when no-one says a word to you as your cramped limbs fight their way onto the air bridge. On-board entertainment was, let’s say, basic. None of our favourite games which pass the time nicely (Tetris for Sally, Backgammon and 2048 for me) though there was a quiz. I selected “general knowledge” and faced ten quite hard questions. I think I got about six right, generating some kind of “surely you can do better than that!” message from the machine. So I had another go, expecting a new set of questions, but no – it was the same ones over again. Since my short-term memory for the time being remains in working order I got the lot right and a message popped up suggesting I was some kind of genius and “how about trying for world peace?”. Needless to say there was not a film on offer which I had the slightest interest in seeing – though to be fair I find that on most airlines. So I thought I might listen to some music and selected the “music menu” which consisted of a single category: “Indian”. Could have been straight out of Goodness, Gracious Me. Fortunately I had a good old-fashioned book with me. And credit where it’s due, the second short leg to Colombo was on an ancient but much less cramped Airbus with a merry cabin crew who did something to rescue the reputation of their airline.

But the real horrors were reserved for Delhi airport. The famed smog had gripped the city so nothing was visible other than a few blurry shapes until we were more or less on the tarmac. We had over an hour before our connecting flight to Colombo which ought to have been plenty. We hadn’t reckoned with Indian so-called “security”. As we entered the terminal an officious young woman ordered all transit passengers to congregate near her. When she was finally sure we were all present she said “follow me!” and marched off at a rate of knots along corridors and travelators for what must have been about a kilometre without once looking back to see if her charges were keeping up. We two oldies barely managed it and quite a few of the less physically able were left well behind and for all I know are still wandering the corridors of Delhi airport looking for a way out.

Then we were faced by a queue to have our hand luggage checked. Now I would submit that security at Heathrow is pretty well A* and we hadn’t had a lot of opportunity to arm ourselves or obtain illegal substances since then. But that’s not good enough for the Indians. And yes, I know this kind of stupidity affects a lot of airports besides Delhi but in most of those they have some kind of system for moving people through quickly. Not in Delhi. Crowds pressed in on the roller belts which fed into scanners looking like props from an early episode of Doctor Who, staffed by guys who seemed to want a good look at every item inside everyone’s bag. No-one in any kind of authority paid any attention to the increasingly stressed complaints of passengers about their connecting flights though one of the porters did keep reassuring us that we would make it to our Colombo plane. But with all due respect to porters, they’re not likely to be the best informed of airport staff. We did make it but they had to hold the flight up for 40 minutes.

So Air India has joined Ryanair on my select list of airlines with which I’ll never fly again no matter what the price. And Delhi has joined Changi[2] (Singapore) and Seville on my select list of airports to avoid if at all possible. Shame about Seville – the nastiness and officiousness of the airport staff left a bad final impression after what had been an utterly splendid week up till then. Back on home turf in Colombo we had to return to the back of the immigration queue to complete our disembarkation forms despite having been assured by the Air India cabin crew that this would not be necessary as we had resident visas. But that was nobbut a minor inconvenience; we were back home and boy, did it feel good!

[1] An exaggeration, of course, but she does know how to get results.

[2] Because transit passengers are ordered to empty the water bottles they bought airside at their previous airport and the water fountains in the departure lounges are dry. So much for “Stay hydrated in the air” as the usual health advice given to long-haul passengers.

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