I was dreading the flight even before take-off in Bhuj, India, near Pakistan. Not exactly on the map for international fun seekers. I was there as a media consultant for a Jain charity called Veerayatan. Security is tight at the airport and run by the Indian Army, so that means that it is a secure pain in the backside.
The Kingfisher flight to Mumbai was quick and painless. Then to arrive in Mumbai to scenes that bring to mind Dante’s “Inferno.” Security, complete with machine gun and ¼”steel shield, told me I couldn’t enter the international airport until 3 hours before my flight because there was no room inside. I had to pay 60 Rupees to sit in a “safe-room” on the airport grounds for 4 hours.
Finally through a dozen security checks, 3 hours in lines and on the aircraft, Air India flight 131 to Heathrow. A dirty 777 and my exit row seat was like sitting on concrete with its padding missing. I don’t even want to talk about all this it is so bad. The dehumanizing security, on and off the plane. The air staff are all state-run “job-for-life” types. The food that I couldn’t eat, and if I knew then that I wasn’t going to get any food for the next 20 hours, I should have. And just the complete disregard of all that is clean, human and decent.
In flight there was nothing to report, they dimmed the lights and I napped for 10 minutes at a time. At 4 in the morning I again said no to the awful food because in 4 hours I could eat in London – I thought. As we passed the white cliffs of Dover, England we were due to arrive early, 7:05 UK time, but then we started circling again and again. Forty-five minutes of this and the Captain comes on the PA system and says because of fog at Heathrow we are diverting to Gatwick.
Not so bad, I thought, because Gatwick is only 30 minutes by train to my house. So I’m home! We landed and parked and everyone jumped up as you do after a long flight. The seatbelt sign stayed on. I was telling the Indian passengers around me how to get from Gatwick to London on the Gatwick Express train to Victoria station. Thirty minutes and I’m home sweet home.
It was a normal 4 hours of being jerked around when suddenly I heard, “No cameras!! Turn off the camera!” This is when any Journo will run for his camera. So I got mine and rushed in. I’d been staying out of it because of the hourly promises of being “in the air again” soon. But word got out that the crew would be leaving the plane and fresh air crew were on their way from Heathrow. The EU rule is that 14 hours is the maximum for aircrew. My fellow passengers went crazy in a ripple effect to the back of the plane. Like a Mexican wave they were standing up and surging forward. Angry chaos and I’m in the crush with live video. Suddenly I was grabbed by the BBC journalist, Rahul Joglekar, and he pulled me into the fray with my video camera to document this treatment.
There was a crush for the next hour of a heavily pregnant woman, several diabetics pleading for food and drink, and 100 other angry folks with concerns about missed connections, the condition of the toilets and so on. There was no food left and the water ran out hours ago. Anger was building as everyone dreamed of reasons to get off the plane. Most of the passengers were Indian nationals, so leaving the plane without proper authority would mean big immigration troubles, so they were truly held hostage by Air India. I have an EU friendly passport, so with the help of a Polish girl we decided to get off with the crew.
Things got to a fever pitch when a group of Indian businessmen began banging on the door of the cockpit. In the US this is a no-go area under threat of deadly force from the armed Sky Marshal onboard. The gentlemen were demanding the Captain come out and explain this situation. He would not come out. Where is this armed Sky Marshal that’s supposed to be on all international flights? This is when security broke down.
We were being kept from contacting the outside world to save a couple of Rupees on passenger landing fees at Gatwick. Security was non-existent, so I left the plane and wandered around the tarmac. The Polish girl came out for a while but went back in because she missed all the yelling inside. I loved the peace and solitude of the great outdoors.
It was 30 minutes later that authorities and 4 constables of the West Sussex Police Force arrived. They were very jovial as they told me to turn off the camera, which I complied with. Then they did a short interview essentially asking what I was doing outside the plane. I said, “It’s a madhouse in there. I can’t stay in there. Please don’t make me go back in. There’s no toilets, no food, no water… and no alcohol.” So I established I wasn’t drunk. There is no alcohol served on Air India. They told me I could stay right where I was at, but not to wander around too much. English police are so nice, polite and gentle.
They then went on to quell the situation inside and gave passengers a shoulder to cry on for the next three hours, something that Air India could not seem to do. International law states that the airline has complete authority over its “cargo” until it decides otherwise. The officers explained there was nothing they could do to get us off that plane. It was up to Air India.
At 17:30 we finally arrived at Heathrow. The replacement crew arrived late, having gotten lost in Gatwick airport. Not a good sign. We forced the old crew to stay with us and not leave the plane. So we were one big happy family again! All this hassle for thirty miles “as the crow flies.”
Here is a letter that I received from Air India afterwards:
(Security issues are serious and in no way just silly things to do. Don’t ever try leaving an aircraft without permission. Always be on your best behaviour while traveling.)