Confusion, Chaos, and Challenges: What one had to brave in order to get on a flight from Mumbai to Delhi

Confusion, Chaos, and Challenges: What one had to brave in order to get on a flight from Mumbai to Delhi

When I was taking up a job in Mumbai, it was always at the back of my mind that home in Delhi will be just a 2-hour flight back. It had never occurred to me that, there will even be a time when this journey will become as challenging as it has been in the past few months. On the contrary, I would often look forward to living off a suitcase much like George Clooney in the movie “Up in the Air”,

But then 2020 has made us sit up and take notice a lot of things that we have been taking for granted so far and yes travel and air travel has become one of those things. It is hard to imagine that we would have some disease or rather a virus come out of nowhere and two months in, we are more clueless of how to deal with than what we began with. Adding to the plight is that a lot of people like me are stuck away from our near and dear ones and feeling homesick. With rules being relaxed in lockdown 3.0 and lockdown 4.0 many brave-hearts had actually ventured by road to reach their home places. Not only is the road journey tiring but was costing nothing less than a fortune.  

So when the civil aviation minister announced last week that air travel will be allowed starting May 25, exactly 60 days after the flights, were grounded, for all the people that were still stuck in some places and longed to go back home, it was a sort of a relief. Now wiser and a little cautious, I was still not sure if the flights might take off, and also I wanted to know the quarantine rules before buying another air ticket and waiting for the refund.

A little background here, I had earlier in Feb planned to go home in the month of March. Given there was a long weekend in the last week of March I had booked a to and fro flight from Mumbai to Delhi on March 24 and Delhi to Mumbai on March 29. I am still chasing the refunds on the same. Also I have in the recent past met a lot of people who had booked tickets when the booking had opened intermittently during these lockdowns only to be shut down sometime later and I am yet to come across who has managed to get a refund.  

So now you can understand why I did not want to jump in to buy the second the ticket bookings opened. However, I did cave in on May 23, with just 48 hours for the flights to resume and prices almost reaching the maximum sealing set by the government, I thought that if there were to be any changes they would have happened by now. But that was not to be the case so! I think the universe was just waiting for me to buy the tickets to unfold the great drama that it had in store.

Just a couple of hours after booking the ticket I got to know that the Maharashtra government is not allowing flights to take off from this region. What followed was 24 hours of stress and confusion. Even despite being in the news business the real information that we were seeking was hard to come by. At around 7 in the evening, there was a new announcement that there will be 50 flights allowed to operate from Mumbai but which of these were the chosen ones, was something that was not shared in the public domain.

Closer to midnight, mere hours for the flights to resume, I was not sure that should I continue to pack or unpack. What’s more, given that Mumbai is in the red zone, arranging a cab at this time or early in the morning would not be an easy thing to do. Earlier, when I had asked around a cab driver had quoted me Rs 2,500 for the airport drop, which on a regular day would cost anything between Rs 150 to Rs 210.

Sleep was hard to come by but I did manage a couple of hours of sleep and then again started checking for the information. On the Air India app, it showed the flight was on track, however, a news report quoting an air India source said they will have a flight only in the evening. The customer care number was not reachable. With all the confusion, I thought it would be best to get to the airport and seek information there.

Getting to the airport

According to the new norms, one has to reach the airport 2 hours before the departure. I started booking a cab using a cab-aggregator service at 7:00 AM but no one was responding. At around 7:45, I gave up and started to try cabs that are parked across the road. While there were several parked around my place, I could only find one driver nearby. He was reluctant to take on a passengers and told that kaali peeli were not allowed to function even if there is an emergency and if he ventures out his tadxi will be impounded.

After strolling for good 10 minutes, I came across a PCR van. I explained the situation to the inspector, showed the booking and boarding pass that I had received in the email. The inspector was really helpful, he not only took my number but he also got a kaali-peeli arranged for the travel. The driver was a really old fellow and even before starting the trip he was really skeptical that if we will be able to reach and also even if he does manage to drop me, how he will get back to his place.

True to his word, about five minutes into the trip we were stopped by the traffic police. Despite showing relevant documents of my flight, the inspector insisted on issuing a challan. We made him talk to the helpful police officer that had arranged for the cab but even after the same, the traffic policemen said that he did empathise with the situation but they have orders to impound or issue challans for kaali-peelis. He even went on to add that if he does not issue one to us then it will be unfair for the ones that he had issues earlier today.

He told that if this was an emergency, I should have stuck by to Ola and Uber. When I told him that there was no one responding, he nodded signaling that he was aware of the situation but could not do much. Later he did add that if the government can allow cab-aggregators, then why not autos and kaali-peeli in limited numbers. After all, these people also have not had any earning in the last 60 days and they deserve to get back to earning.

He even told that the challan was to be paid later and only via credit card. The irony is the old taxi driver that agreed to drop me even this situation did not even have a mobile on him, wonder where would he get a card to pay the fine and if he is unable to pay the same, would have to spend few hours or a night in police station all this while risking an infection.

The rest of the journey was breezy with just the sound of the meter in the background. The entire ride there were only two things in my mind, will it be worthwhile to drag the taxi person with me only to learn that my flight is cancelled. Also, if it is indeed cancelled what a headache it will be to get another refund.

Scenes from the airport

At the airport, the first thing I saw were reporters with their camera crew trying to capture the buzz. Even as I got down, I was told by the airport staff to which gate I should be heading. Most people at the airport were following social distancing and standing a little away from each other. This was barring Gate No 3, where people travelling by Indigo were stationed. There was a really long queue at this gate and very little scope for social distancing. However, all across the airport there was confusion and chaos. There were a lot of people just like me who had come to check about their ticket since they had got no information from the airlines on whether the flight has made it to the converted 25 flights that will be taking off on May 25.

Most people had a really hard time reaching the airport from all parts of the town. Some had even walked their way to the airport since there was no other option available. On reaching the airport I had learned that my flight had indeed be canceled. The first thought was now figuring how to get home since the same cab situation persisted. At the airport, I had met a few others traveling by the same flight who suggested that we should wait till 9:00 AM for Air India office and argue our case and be accommodated in the next flight. This seemed like a good suggestion, we had already risked ourselves and braved it till here.

Some of us were still trying to connect to customer care over a call but there were long hold and no answer. At around 10 someone finally came to the Air India counter but he seemed to have little answers himself. He would direct the people towards the self-check-in kiosk outside and say, “If you can print a boarding pass, then you can come in!” There were some heated arguments that followed but no solution. By then one person in queue managed to connect to the customer care and was told that we will be accommodated in the 10:pm flight and he even got the tickets emailed to him. However, for the rest of us, the app still showed that our flight will take off in another hour. And as per the information board the flight was still canceled. When I finally managed to connect to a customer care person and around 10:15 am, he told me to connect to the customer care person present there who would help change the flight to the later tonight.

Ideally speaking, the 10:00 PM flight was not a suitable option, as it meant landing post-mid-night. By the time, thermal checking and baggage claim finishes it will be 1:00 AM and Delhi is never a safe place to travel anyways after 11, so this was beyond my usual curfew.

The bigger question was if this is the only option to get home and worst-case scenario I take this and get a friend to pick me up and drop home, how does one spend another 10 hours outside with no food and water. Again given the cab situation in Mumbai, it was out of the question to go back and come again.

Either way there was no one at the Air India counter to assist and it seemed like I was wasting my time waiting on this flight, so I decided at first out of curiosity to check which flights were flying to Delhi. From the information board, I learned that there was a Vistara flight scheduled for 14:10. When I checked the app, I even managed to see that it was accepting booking for the same. It is at that second that I decided to ditch Air India and book this flight instead. In less than two minutes, I had a new ticket but somehow I was unable to web check-in. To inquire the same, I went to the gate designated to Vistara. There were only two people ahead of me. I was asked to show the Aarogaya Setu app on my phone and they took a temperature reading. Following this, I was asked to scan the bar-code in the E-ticket I had on the gate and show a government id. There is a special designated spot where one has to show the id and the security personnel do not physically touch or inspect anything. After this, I was allowed to enter the airport premises and told someone will assist me inside. 

The airport seemed afar from its usual bustling self. There were a few people trying and even the staff seemed lesser than usual. I proceeded to a self-check-in kiosk, where after scanning the same barcode in the E-ticket, I was able to procure a boarding pass and a tag for my check-in luggage. All across the airport, there were santiser dispersers installed, which were being used liberally by people. All one hand to do was to keep your hand and it would automatically dispense a couple of drops. I think this was a really clever addition.

The final part of the journey

After obtaining the boarding pass and the tag, I proceeded to the gate to drop the luggage. Here to people were being asked politely to stand in line where spots were clearly marked with social distancing in mind. On dropping the luggage, I was asked to fill a self-declaration form, which asked if I was living in a containment zone or if I had any co-morbidities, and also if I am willing to follow all instructions laid my MHA etc. I also had to share my email address, address where I will be staying in the destination city and my phone number.

Once these formalities were complete, I was asked to clear the security and proceed to the gate. The security area was also not crowded, given that there were only limited flights taking off. Even before entering the line, everyone was being asked to sanitise their hands. It took only a couple of minutes to clear the security.

Inside the airport, there were a lot of shops that were open and some in the process of opening. Everyone was wearing a mask and they were frequently sanitising counters. Some food and coffee places were also open and a few people were seen enjoying a little bite before their flights. Most outlets I checked were accepting payment only via a card and not money to avoid the risk of contamination.

In the waiting area near the gate, the middle seats were marked as ones that cannot be used to maintain distance.

The boarding of the flight started at around 13:20 with clear instructions to maintain social distancing. They were calling in seat numbers starting from the back of the plane. The crew had masks and face shields in place and they were checking the body temperature of everyone and handing them a care kit. This care kit consisted of a shield, disposable 3-layer mask and a small sachet of hand sanitiser.

In the flight, I was expecting the middle seats to be empty much like the seats in the waiting area but that was not to be the case so. In fact the flight was full with no seat to spare. The crew was wearing a disposable overall along with a shield and a mask. They handed everyone a small bottle of water and informed that there will be no meals served on the flight. After the safety demonstrations, it was also announced to keep interaction with fellow passengers minimum and the crew to a minimum and to get up from the seats only if one must.

Even while de-boarding, the crew ensured that everyone was wearing the shield, and de-boarding happens row-wise to avoid crowding. Much like the Mumbai airport, I was hoping the Delhi airport also to have sanitisers all across but could not find any on my way to the baggage area. Further there was no thermal check-up at the Delhi airport, which to me was the most shocking part of the journey.

Either way, I was happy to finally made this journey and now counting days for this 14 days banvas of self-isolation to end.