Friday, February 23, 2007

Air India: Oh Maharaja, when will you respect my time? - Part II

Continued from Part I...

Having checked my luggage in for flight AI 131, I now waited patiently for the next 4 hours to pass. I was impressed that we boarded the flight on time! At exactly 12:25, all the passengers were in, and I was impressed! Things seemed to be working out, and I was eagerly awaiting the thrill I experience at takeoff time in every flight I take!

However, the doors of the aircraft didn't close. 30 minutes passed, and soon there were a bunch (about 8) of people at the bottom of the ladder talking loudly into their walky-talkies. An hour passed and we heard some bumping sounds. This is when the captain informed us that our runway had been closed and the other runway that was shorter required the luggage to be offloaded that the aircraft can fly. 90 minutes were up, the bumps were gone, the doors were open and people were pissed. 2 hours up and a woman started screaming - requesting to be offloaded that the aircraft could get lighter (pretty ridiculous, but that is how frustrated people behave) and that she could take the flight on the next day!

Finally, the pilot announced that he was clueless most of the time and that the aircraft had been allowed to use the runway of it's choice! He said that we'd take off shortly - that turned out to be a wait of another 30 minutes. So, my AI flight AI 131 scheduled for takeoff from BOM around 12:25 was finally taxi-ing at 15:00 hours. Now, it was apparent to me that my Lufthansa flight LH 4743 scheduled for departure from London Heathrow at 19:05 was outside my reach. My experience with Lufthansa told me that they are hardly late, and with so much going wrong today, I could only trust them to be on time.

As expected, my flight landed in London a painful 10 minutes after my Lufthansa connection to Frankfurt took off. On disembarking at London, I was asked to visit the Air India customer service center in LHR at "Zone F". It so happened that "Zone F" needed emigration clearance. An Indian needs to have a UK VISA to pass this point. Of course, I was not told of this, and on a lot more walking I reached the Air India counter on the "onward flight" section. Having waited there for about 20 minutes (for the AI representative) to finish processing the fellow traveller from BOM in my situation, when my turn came up, I made clear my preferences to travel to FRA on the next available flight. Instead I was handed a place in the Lufthansa Flight the next morning along with a coupon for overnight accommodation!

It was 21:30 (02:30 IST) hours in Heathrow now, and it did not even occur to them that someone who has been awake for about 22 hours is in no position to catch an early flight the next day! What choice did I have? I had to comply.

I was given a special transit VISA applicable for 1 day. By the time I managed to clear emigration and reach the hotel it was 23:00 hours. I had now been awake for more than 24 hours and was at my wits' end!

The hotel (Ibis) at LHR did not allow me to make international calls. They said bluntly - "Use the pay phone, Sir - Air India does not pay for it's passengers' international calls". Wow, this is supposed to be passenger right on international travel! But, nothing could surprise me now!

I set an alarm on my cell phone, used the morning alarm and slept with a level of alertness just to ensure that I dont miss my morning flight.

Reached Heathrow on time to catch the Lufthansa connection to FRA. The lady at the check-in counter did confirm that my baggage was in LHR and that it would be forwarded to my flight. As is customary of Lufthansa, the flight flew well on time (okay, a 10 minute delay is ignore-worthy given the events of the day). I reached Frankfurt to find that my baggage has not arrived. It was still at Heathrow.

I was not only baggage-less, but also getting late for my day's set of meetings. However, Air India that was responsible for a day's delay refused to provide me with a shuttle / airport-transfer that would take me to my work quickly.

I plan to claim compensation for my day's work lost. For all the hassles and for phone calls that they did not pay for. But, what can I really expect? Time only will tell.

One thing is for sure - this time, the Maharaja treated a frequent-flier with a great amount of disdain! Sad.

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