Friday, February 01, 2008

Things I Learnt on This Trip

Privatisation is BULLSHIT

My flight to Delhi is, as usual, late, but I do have three hours before the scheduled departure of my connecting flight. I exit the plane and go to the transit desk, to be told that the next bus to the international terminal leaves at 10pm (it was 905pm), and if I wanted to get there faster I would have to take a prepaid taxi. The line for the pre-paying was about 25 minutes long, but I decided to take advantage of flying Kingfisher and asked for help, so the girl jumped the queue for me. The line for the taxi was 15 minutes long, but since I had jumped the previous one I was ok. The taxi itself took about 5 minutes, because I was willing to get on the expressway and pay the toll. Normally it would have taken about 25 to 30 minutes, or more, depending on traffic, since the international airport is 8km from the domestic airport.

Cost of transit: INR 151.
Time of transit without jumps: 65 minutes
Time of transit if one jumps: 25 minutes

I’ll admit I haven’t done this transit in Delhi in this direction before, but if this is the theoretical efficiency of privatisation (topped by the proposed hefty fee of INR 700 for every passenger passing through the airport*), I’m happy to go back to the Sarkari days. At least one expected to run into cock-ups, and one left oneself with about 8 hours between the two flights.

There’s a reason people are rude and bitchy in airports. It works.

The afternoon of my departure, I received a phone-call from American Airlines. ‘Hi ma’am this is Anchal from American Airlines. Am I speaking to Ms. MinCat? Your American Airlines flight to Chicago is delayed by twelve hours. We can find you a connection onward to Newark leaving Chicago at 8pm. Yes ma’am we can also put you on the Continental flight to Newark out of Delhi. Ok ma’am your new itinerary is Delhi-Newark on Continental Airlines. Thank you for flying American Airlines.’

Smug, I disconnected, since I had been expecting just this to happen, and had my butt safely covered, getting to Newark direct and thus able to hang out at my aunt’s house after she picked me up. Well done MinCat!

Once I got to Delhi, I went to the Continental counter, where I was told I would have to be ticketed at American first. It was 10pm when I got to the American counter. The Continental flight was scheduled to leave at 1155pm. I approached one of the personnel and politely waited for her to finish her lengthy and friendly chat with three white Americans. Once I got her attention I explained my situation, including the fact that I had had my itinerary changed for Continental. ‘It’ll just be a few minutes ma’am, please wait here I’ll be with you in 2 minutes.’

1010pm. I’m getting slightly stressed out. The girl is nowhere to be seen, so I approach another one, who is, I later realized predictably, having a long and amiable conversation with a group of, you guessed it, white Americans. ‘Ma’am we’ll do our best, don’t worry we’ll have you on the flight, please wait in this queue, if it doesn’t move in 15 minutes I’ll help you out.’

1025pm. Nothing has changed, except my teeth have been ground down about a millimetre. The girl I last spoke to is avoiding looking in my direction. There are about four guys in suits standing about watching one guy at the first class counter do something. I approach a third girl. I say, look the flight leaves in an hour and a half, please look at my ticket. ‘In a minute ma’am.’

1035pm. I catch the last girl again and am a little strident, look I’ve been here for nearly forty minutes, and what happens if I miss the Continental flight because you won’t look at my ticket. Reluctantly she takes my ticket and passport, telling me sternly that ONLY IF my itinerary reflects that I have indeed made that change will she ticket it for me. She joins the gaggle at the first class counter and shares several jokes with them.

1050pm. Another girl comes to me with the ticket and says here, go to Continental. I say, it’s almost time for the counters to close, aren’t you going to contact them or send someone to help me? She waves a porter at me, who has no clue where we’re going or why. As we go towards Continental’s counters the girl who took my tickets passes by with a stressed out passenger in tow, and looks at me and then pretends she hasn’t seen me. I see that the screens that were displaying the Continental logo have been turned off, and break into a run, only to be stopped by a nice man who says, I’m sorry, the flight is closed, we can’t hold it for American passengers. We told them to have their passengers with us by 1030pm.

11pm. I return to the American counter and let it rip. ‘Will someone pay attention’ I bellow. A girl at a ticket terminal looks up and says ‘yes?’ ‘The Continental counters are closed,’ I say loudly and stridently. ‘The agent said you were asked to send us there by 1030. I’ve been asking for someone to look at my ticket from 10pm. Now please tell me how you’re going to get me to Newark by 11am?’ She’s looks taken aback, after all it wasn’t her who had dealt with me previously. Interestingly, every single one of the people I had spoken to earlier had vanished. The yelling, however, means instant service. I’m bumped to the head of the ticketing line and in about 15 minutes they have issued me a ticket on Air France (which is quite dreadful, being as it is, filled with French people and stewardesses, besides having a layover AND a guarantee of no non-meat food. On the bright side there was that lovely merlot, that I didn’t even want to finish cos I dunno, drinking alone on planes is BORING.)

Essentially, I had been polite, I had been patient, I had been, in fact, quite non-Indian. Unfortunately, since I was neither white nor first class, I got no service, and eventually I am paying the price for behaving well. The question I put to the manager: Do you WANT people to be obnoxious? Because that’s the message you’re sending.

European airports, at least the ones that seem spanking new, are eerie.

Madrid Barajas has a new international terminal, and it is an architectural wonder. It has high, undulating ceilings; it is banded in bright primary colours; it’s airy and cheerful. It’s also ridiculously large. And empty. There are huge rows of empty seats for waiting passengers; long, vacant corridors; tons of shuttered shops; and miles of walking through glass-enclosed walkways before you actually see someone who wasn’t on your flight. You even need to take a subway train-ride of about 5 minutes to get to baggage claim (this after the 20 minute walk from the gate to the train stop).

Paris Charles de Gaulle seems to be trying to do the same thing! It has high ceilings, VERY chic modern seats (comfy too), double rows of internet terminals separating gates, glass and chrome and sleek lines everywhere, bright strips of coloured lighting, the glass walkways and beautiful views of the city from them, modern art on the walls, warm carpets, glass towers with LCD TV screens every 10 feet….and no people


*Actually all airports charge those kinds of fees, about 30% of the domestic travel fare in the US goes to airport taxes, for example. But it’s a disturbingly large amount of money to pay for the execrable service!


  1. All airports are beginning to look alike, aren't they? Not to worry, they will soon fill up with people. I love HK airport best, by the way.

    About the debacle, I don't think it's owing to privitization so much as the slowness of the privitization process so the governmental way of doing things, lack of infrastructure etc still holds say. The check-in people were clearly just odd - it's so reminiscent of Air India.

    And yeah, you have to make nakras to get anything done, anywhere in the world. Even at work, people who make the most noise about being unhappy with their job are likely to get promoted.

  2. 1st. I agree about being obnoxious. It helps if you fluster the other (non responsive) person a bit.
    2nd. Privatization usually has only govt service to comepete with in countries that have recently opened up. So the service is not going to be comparable to the developed countries.
    3rd. Airports everywhere are slow in service. It is an occupational hazard.

  3. i agree completely, both fo you, about all the things about privatization. im only saying that it was the expectation of dependable transit services that made me not do my usual 24 hr stopover in delhi. i guess we in india are very accustomed to blaming shite on the government...after all GMR has had delhi airport for over a year now, transit services are even more basic than toilets in an international airport!

  4. I did read this post, but find all I have to say is 'new layout is a bit' but then can't find the right word to describe it. This may all be a function of the drugs I'm taking.

  5. I liked the earlier look of CDG, very clean and white.
    I remember Barajas for the confusion - no signage, so I wandered along looking for baggage claim till I found myself outside the terminal. I did find my bag, but I never went through immigration.

    Re: getting service. Thankfully never had to fly American or Continental, but I find a very assured, super-polite but sarcastic approach works for me. But then I almost always fly Jet.


  6. thanks for making the effort dave

    JAP, i know! barajas was like that in 05 but last year it was all whaaaaa? CDG this was my first time so i dunno. i thought it was tres francais and tres chic. and tres empty...though a different time might have made a difference. Hah! I shld try Jet. I used to LOVE em domestic but now i'm a kingfisher girl. a nice hefty man in a red jacket appears and in very jeeves-like manner has my bags boarded, removed and sent on their way.