32-Hour Air India Trouble for a four-hour flight
Technical glitches holding up flights can happen with any airline. How efficiently the airline deals with that to minimise any inconvenience for passengers makes all the difference!
I have experienced it with even Singapore Airlines – a snag that delayed the flight from Chennai by around three hours a few years ago. But SIA rose to the challenge and made sure passenger discomfort did not simmer and have an adverse impact on its future business.
SIA quickly rallied the passengers together, clearly communicated the issue and took care of their interests (refreshments, etc) while waiting for the flight to be ready for departure. Each of the passengers was even given a gift as a token of appreciation for putting up with the inconvenience.
Delays and Poor Service: Fast forward to January 3, 2o14 when I reached the Chennai airport around 10am to board an Air India flight bound for Singapore – scheduled for 1.15pm. By around 11am when we were still in the check-in queue it was announced that the flight was delayed by four hours.
This was because for technical reasons the flight had to return to Singapore soon after it took off from there, leading to the delay. Passengers in Chennai were to board the same flight for Singapore.
We were told we could still check-in and wait while they fix the problem. They began serving lunch at 1.30pm for which we had to queue up for an hour. The food was good though!
A “Minus Tag” and the Flight is Grounded: Then at 5pm the flight took off as per the delayed schedule. But after about 30 minutes in the air the captain announced that the flight was returning to Chennai for technical reasons. This was because a ”minus tag“ (not sure what it means!) was showing up and this meant it could not continue flying to Singapore.
The snag had apparently not been set right. This was a shame given that the issue had surfaced even when the aircraft was in Singapore.
No Proper Communication, No Strategy: Worse things were in store for us after we landed back in Chennai around 6pm. We remained stuck in the plane for about 45 minutes when no meaningful announcement was made to explain the situation and what was being done to address the issue. The captain merely said the Commercial wing had been alerted and they would deal with it.
We deplaned around 6.45pm and there was none there to give us the necessary communication. We started walking back towards the arrival/immigration area where there were a couple of ground staff but they did not appear to have any communication plan.
I expected them to gather the passengers and properly communicate the issue and their strategy to address it. Each of us could easily have been provided with a printed statement on what has happened and on what is being done.
The passengers started swarming around the staff and they had nothing meaningful to stay. All they could convey was that they are in the dark as much as the passengers and would have to wait for the duty manager to make any formal announcement.
The duty manager was nowhere in sight for about an hour and passengers were beginning to get restless. The ground staff were hardly helpful and we could not hear anything they were saying. There was no microphone and they were not audible enough to the around 400 stranded passengers.
AI official behaved like a thug: One passenger was so miffed that he shouted “can you explain what the hell is happening? I can hear nothing.” The AI official got so annoyed by the comment that he came charging towards the passenger like a thug and almost assaulted him, thundering “mind your language, how dare you say ‘what the hell’. Other passengers intervened and fisticuffs were averted.
I found nothing wrong in the tone of the passenger. If anything, the official was wrong and behaved like a riffraff (Indian government entities are full of them). That chap deserves to be dealt with sternly but I am sure Air India will do nothing about it. He may be a member of the Union that will hold the airline hostage!
Shabby Treatment of Passengers: By 8.30pm the duty manager surfaced and we were told that there was no chance of the flight taking off that night and that accommodation would be arranged for the passengers for the night. Persistent questioning on when they anticipate to put the passengers back on a flight to Singapore was met only with an unapologetic, unacceptable response: “we do not know. We are trying our best to make it soon”
There were a few other flights from other airlines to Singapore – Tiger Airways, Singapore Airlines, etc. Air India did not seem to make any effort to look at that option. At least I did not know!
Clearly, Air India was ill-prepared and did not have any efficient strategy in place to minimise the discomfort for passengers.
I decided to accept the accommodation provided by Air India in the absence of any meaningful communication about when we will be boarded back into a flight. What if the flight leaves at 7am and I am not informed about it? Staying in one place with other passengers will make it easier for communication and transport. Or so I thought!!
Unilateral AI Decision: We had to clear immigration, pick up all our checked-in baggages and head to the hotel. This was a nuisance and the duty manager took this decision unilaterally on behalf of the passengers. Most of us felt the baggages should remain checked-in so we would not have the inconvenience of going through it all over again.
It took the counter staff about 20 minutes to check us in and provide us with boarding passes the first time – and this though we had completed our check-in online! If they took this long imagine how long it would take for 400 passengers to complete the formality!
I assumed accommodation will be at a hotel closer to the airport, but instead it was at Vijay Park in Arumbakkam – about an hour away from the airport amid messy traffic.
Ancient Taxis: A mini-bus to transport the passengers will have been ideal. Instead, an Ambassador yellow-top taxi was arranged for every four passengers. These are very old cars (possibly, 40 or 50 year-old) and I wonder why these are not taken off the roads! Passenger safety and that of the people are the least of the priorities for governments in India!
We reached the hotel around 10pm. The airline had told us that they would inform the hotel when the aircraft is ready for departure. This was reaffirmed by the hotel staff – they would call us as soon as they hear from Air India!
Lie by Hotel: We hardly slept at night and by 6.30 am I decided to call the hotel reception for any information. Shockingly, I was told all passengers had already left as the flight was to take off at 9am or so. The reception chap lied that he called our room several times and that we did not pick it up. As I was awake all through the night and there was no missed call on the phone I nailed the fellow’s lie. But this is India where dishonesty is a virtue.
I had no time to argue with the hotel and, thankfully, we were provided with a hotel car (instead of the rickety Ambassador taxis that AI had arranged) and we reached the airport at 8.30am.
More Lies — No Separate Flight: It was then we were told that there was no separate AI flight as we had been told. Air India perhaps just wanted to get the passengers out of the hotel first so they would not have to foot their breakfast bills!
We were told we would take the regular AI flight for the day scheduled for 1.15pm – the flight we were booked on for the earlier day! The flight departed an hour late past 2pm.
We were happy to reach Singapore around 9pm Singapore after the bitter AI experience.
I wanted to return to Singapore by Friday so I could have adequate rest over the weekend and be fresh and ready to resume work on Monday.
Three weeks in Chennai were full of activity that drained us out – a lot of things to do amid the depressing traffic conditions there, Christmas and New Year festivities, hectic shopping and the resulting issues (the Godrej experience, for instance, that I blogged about on January 2 – https://joslinv.wordpress.com/2014/01/02/poor-product-from-godrej-worse-after-sales-service/),
My daughter was keen on attending the Sunday service at church and meeting friends there after a long break. But we were so exhausted by the time we landed in Singapore after the irksome 32-hour experience, ‘courtesy’ of Air India, that we chose to rest at home all of Sunday!
We have to make another visit to Chennai later this month to attend a wedding. I will make sure it is not by Air India.
G Joslin Vethakumar