Once upon a time, not so long ago, airports were stinky, grimy pits of lassitude and inefficiency. The bathrooms were unusable. The floors were the colour of fossilized dirt. The noticeboards were those split-flap things that made clackety noises when the letters and numbers rearranged themselves to give what was invariably entirely incorrect information. Conveyor belts wheezed and rattled as though they were powered by small, chained animals rather than electricity. (Actually, “belts” perhaps needs amendment. There was one working conveyor belt in most airports. Consequently, once the belt started, airport staff pulled suitcases off the belt so that it would be quickly free for the next flight. This meant many tourists got petrified their suitcases had been lost when actually they were sitting in a cluster of unclaimed baggage somewhere in the airport.) Basically, nothing worked. To get anything from information whether a flight had landed to getting the conveyor belt to start, you had to call someone and/or holler at the uniformed airport peeps. This was in the ’80s.
Now we have shiny, new airports and many airlines, each trying to convince the consumer that they’re more efficient than the next. The airlines have smartly-dressed staff who strut across airport terminals that are clean and sparkly. The bathrooms have working flushes. There are screens instead of notice boards. You can get everything from a roasted hazelnut latté to an airconditioned taxi at the airport now. And yet, just when you (read: I) think the times they are a-changing, you’re (read: I’m) reminded that the chaotic affairs of the airports of yore was not because the buildings were ugly (which they were) but because the people running the damn things were idiots (which they continue to be).
For example, recently I was at Mumbai airport, intending to travel to Delhi. I’d bought a ticket on Indigo, which has quickly built up a reputation for being efficient and timely, and having airhostesses who wear Pan-Am-inspired wigs. “It’s quintessentially new India,” a person who works in PR told me. “Stylish, smart and no-nonsense.” All this was true at one point in time. Then they became successful and got a tv ad campaign going. The first ad was cute even if its attempt to connect Indigo flight landings to the Indian economy’s growth rate was a bit of a stretch. The second one had White people pretending to be Indians. I should have known that it was all going to hell when I saw that last ad. But no, I put my faith in this new India and bought tickets on an Indigo flight to Delhi and back.
When I checked in, the Indigo-lady told me to reach a particular gate to board the flight. Let us say it was Gate 12. When it’s time to start boarding, I notice that Gate 12 does have a winding line in front of it, but it is of passengers intending to go to Coimbatore and on a different airline. I think it was SpiceJet, but I must admit, I don’t remember precisely. It could just as easily have been GoAir. The man wore a white shirt and a big smile. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help narrow down the options. Anyway, the result of me going up to smiling man in white shirt to find out what’s happening to my flight resulted in the following conversation.
“Hi, I was wondering if you could tell me what the gate is for the Indigo flight to Delhi?”
“Ma’am, this is the XXX flight to Coimbatore.”
“Yes, I realise that. But I was wondering if you could help me find the gate because I was told the Indigo flight would be at this gate.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. This is the flight to Coimbatore.”
“Right. Thank you. I got that. Do you know the Delhi gate?”
“It will say on your boarding pass, ma’am.”
“No, you see, the boarding pass says this gate.”
“No, ma’am. This flight is going to Coimbatore.”
“Yes, I got that. But can you tell me who can tell me about the Delhi flight?”
“It’ll be on your boarding pass.”
[I grit teeth, attempt deep breathing exercises and show boarding pass.]
“The boarding pass is wrong, ma’am. This gate is for the flight to Coimbatore.”
Miraculously, this gentleman is still alive and in one, unmauled piece.
Anyway, I leave that gate behind me and find a man wearing an Indigo tie. I ask him about the Delhi flight. “I’m also trying to figure that out actually,” he says to me. “It’ll be somewhere here.”
Really? You think the gate for the Mumbai-Delhi flight will be somewhere here in Mumbai airport? Thank god for that.
I ask him if he’s travelling on the same flight. “I think I’m the co-pilot, ma’am,” he tells me pleasantly. As I watch this gent waft away aimlessly and buy a sandwich while calling someone on his phone (presumably to find out where the plane he’s supposed to fly is parked) I’m suddenly not sure I want to take this flight anymore. However, since mine is a non-refundable ticket, I decide to do the only thing that worked back in the ’80s: I throw a shit-fit at someone who is not even remotely responsible for my woes — the security staff standing at a gate that has not been allotted to Indigo. It’s unfair but it gets the ball rolling. I snarl at Security; Security snarls in walkie-talkie; much chipmunk-ish chatter ensues. Five minutes later, the gate’s been allotted. I waddle over to the co-pilot, who is eating a cheese sandwich, and tell him. He thanks me.
Returning to Mumbai proved to be even more … I’ve no idea what the correct word would be.
The Indigo flight landed in Mumbai, on time (as their ads promise. Yay). We trooped into the airport and stood in front of a conveyor belt that was not moving but the screen above it promised us that our bags would be on it, soon. Ten minutes later, nothing. Fifteen minutes later, nothing. By this time, I’m getting impatient and making growly noises. When I muttered loudly, “Shouldn’t we talk to someone to find out what’s going on?”, a very young, very hip creature — flaunting hat, skinny jeans, iPhone — threw me a patronising smile and said, “I’m sure the bags will be here any minute” as though I was senile. At about the 30-minute mark, the conveyor belt began moving. People around me gave me looks that were a curious combination of triumph and pity. I’m still rather befuddled by this because there was nothing on the damn belt. Ten minutes later, bags appeared. Except they were bags from a different flight. I looked up at the screen and it informed me that these were bags off an Indigo flight alright, but one that had come in from either Goa or Indore (both cities were mentioned on the screen. Damned if I know what that means). I point this out to anyone who would care to listen. No one reacts. I guess that’s a new-India thing, but being a child of old India, I unleashed my inner Punjabi harridan upon the nearest Indigo-logo wearing human being. This happened to be a hapless lad who’s been employed to push wheelchairs but he was able to point me in the direction of a girl in blue whose badge read “Clyta, Customer Relations.” Fire, brimstone, “get me your manager”, “what nonsense is this?”, “I demand a refund” (of what? Who cares? The point is to say it belligerently) followed. Then Clyta got on the phone with — wait for it — Samson.
Call number 1:
“Samson, Clyta here. Where is the baggage for 177? … Yes it’s landed. … No, it has definitely landed. Passenger says so. … Passenger is right here. Yes, please check.”
Call number 2:
“Yes, Samson. … Ok. But where is it? … Ok. Do you know where you sent it? … No, 432 is on that belt. … How can all of it be in unclaimed baggage? … No, passengers have not taken. How can some passengers go with all the luggage? … No, Samson. Passengers are all waiting here. … Yes, all of them. No one has left. … Yes, please check.”
At this point, Clyta informs me that the baggage is in Mumbai and the flight is still here so I shouldn’t worry. Eventually, my luggage will be mine. Naturally, more fire, brimstone etc. follows from me.
Call number 3:
“Yes, Samson. … No, I don’t know. You come here and see. All passengers are waiting here. … No, that’s Indore. 177 is Delhi. … What do you mean? … But that’s what I mean. … So where did you send it? … How can it be on its way for so long? … Passenger is asking for refund. Quickly, Samson. Please.”
Five minutes later, the bags were on the belt. By this time, we’d been waiting for about an hour. If only I’d used my ’80s tactics sooner.