The Never Ending Flight

August 4, 2011

in Odds & Ends Stories

1. How It All Started

We are living in the new age. This is the age of technology, the age of the internet. Everything happens at the speed of light, quite literally. People buy and sell things online, chat online, even live online in virtual worlds. Who could have thought of these things a few years ago. But despite all this progress, one thing has not changed – the travails of flying. One would have thought that with all this advancement, the traveling experience would have gotten better, but no sir, it has only gotten worse. These are the times of endless delays and cancellations. It is hard to find a person in today’s age that hasn’t been on the receiving end of flying delays. I have had my share of such flying experiences, but there is one that I can never forget.

It happened to me around 15 years back. Even today, it is still quite fresh in my mind. It all started when my fiancé and I decided to go back to India to get married. Having been brought up in India, there was no way we could have gotten married here in the US without our family and friends. Both of our parents were also in India. Once the date of our marriage was decided, we both applied for vacations and left for India. After our arrival in Delhi, India, we got busy with all the preparations. It was a big traditional wedding. It was fun to see everyone after a long time. There were so many dinners, lunches, and breakfasts we were invited to that we were literally stuffed with all kinds of Indian delicacies by the time I was ready to leave. Due to a medical emergency at my home, my wife decided to stay for an extra few weeks, while I decided to head back to the US as planned earlier.

2. Business Class!!!
I was flying through Gulf Air, which meant two stopovers – one in Abu Dhabi and one in Frankfurt. Since this was the first time I was leaving for the US after getting married, there was a lot of activity at my home before my departure. There were a lot of friends and family at home and as a result we got late in starting for the airport. Just before we left, one of my uncles reminded me to keep a fresh pair of clothes in my handbag in case of an emergency. He has had a few flying experiences which he shared with me, and suggested that I keep some things in my carry-on luggage just in case I was stuck somewhere without my checked-in luggage. Although I wasn’t worried about it, I decided to follow his advice. Who would have thought at that time that this would end up being a brilliant decision.

Delhi being a big city, there was a lot of traffic on the way, so instead of arriving about 3 hours before the flight departure as per the recommendations, we arrived with only an hour left before the departure. I ran in with my luggage and reached the check-in counter. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the lady on the Gulf Air counter wasn’t upset. In fact the whole staff at the airport was quite nice. They told me that since I came late, the seats were all filled up. I got a bit upset and enquired as to how the seats could be filled when I had a confirmed reservation. They told me that this usually happens in most airlines as most flights are overbooked to cover for last minute cancellations. At this point I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have a cell phone (they were not as common then), so I didn’t know who to call. The airline staff told me not to worry and they gave me a boarding pass and smiled. As I started to look at it, they told me that I had been upgraded to business class with no extra charge. “Wow,” I said to myself, “This seems like a good beginning to the journey.” Boy was I wrong.

The first leg of the journey was wonderful. The food in business class was sumptuous and plentiful, the seats were comfortable, and the flight staff was very courteous. We landed in Abu Dhabi a few hours later.

3. The First Signs Of Trouble
I had about 5 hours of time before the departure of the connecting flight to Frankfurt, so I decided to look around. The airline also provided us with special food coupons. When there was only one hour left, I decided to reach the designated departure gate. I could see a number of passengers already assembled there, waiting for the connecting flight to arrive. It was already 10 pm and everyone was tired. There were not too many flights this late in the night and the airport was more or less deserted, barring the passengers of a few flights including ours. I had another hour to kill, so I pulled out a book I was carrying with me and started reading it. Some fellow travelers started talking to each other just to kill time, while some others decided to take a nap. The time flew and it was almost the time of the flight. This is when the first signs of trouble started to appear.

The time for departure was a few minutes away, but there were no airline personnel in sight. That is odd, I thought. As minutes ticked away, I grew more and more concerned. Everyone was getting anxious as to what was wrong and why the delay. It was past 11:30 p.m. when an airline representative arrived at the gate. Everyone rushed to him only to be told that there was some engine trouble which was being looked at and the aircraft would not be flying until next morning. This is not what anyone wanted to hear.

Once everyone absorbed the news, questions regarding the sleeping arrangements started to surface. The airline representative flatly refused to help, and said that there were no hotels on the airport premises at this hour of night which would give us any rooms. In addition, he told us that we could not leave the airport without valid visas and the visa official was gone for the day. After numerous requests from the passengers, he went back to meet his superiors to see if there was any hope for us. He came back after another 15 minutes and told us that Gulf Air had found a hotel in Dubai which had space for all of the 150 passengers! But it meant that we would have to take a short flight to Dubai. It was close to midnight and we all agreed to take the flight. He also told us that we need not worry about the visa as someone from the airline would be there to help us. So we all boarded the flight to Dubai.

4. A Night In Dubai
The flight arrived in Dubai close to 1:30 a.m. I was tired and sleepy, and like everyone else, I was hoping to get some sleep in a comfortable bed. But as soon as we landed, the troubles started again. The customs officials in Dubai were shocked to see so many people in a flight at that time of the night. On top of that none of us had proper papers to visit Dubai. They refused to let us go. We tried to explain the situation to them, but they told us that no one from the airline informed them about our arrival, and that we had to wait until the morning to get this resolved as the airline’s office was now closed. It was 2:30 a.m. by the time someone from the airline arrived at the airport and clarified the issue. The customs officials decided to give us coupons in lieu of our passports and tickets. So they collected passports and tickets from everyone and handed out a bunch of coupons to the airline representative. So here I was in a country I had not planned on visiting, without a passport or a ticket, and no proof of my identity. I shuddered to think what would happen if I got lost in this strange, unknown land.

When we reached the gate to leave for the hotel, the guards stopped us to check the validity of the coupons. Another problem arose – half the coupons went missing somewhere between the time they were issued until the time they checked. Apparently someone stole them for some clandestine purpose. The cops were called and one of the airport officials was held back for questioning.

God had mercy on us and imparted some sense into those officials who allowed us to continue our journey to the hotel to spend the night – which was already slipping fast out of our hands. It was well past 3:30 a.m. by the time we arrived at the hotel. I checked in and retired to the bed and was asleep in no time.

5. A New Day Begins
However the blissful slumber was quite short-lived. I was woken up by a very loud banging noise. I jumped out of the bed and started looking at what this noise was. The noise was actually coming from the door. The hotel staff had tried to wake us up by phone, but the internal system was down so they decided to round us up by going from room to room. I looked at the clock while still rubbing my eyes – it was only 6 a.m. I was told that the aircraft had been fixed and had arrived in Dubai from Abu Dhabi and was ready to fly. With no other choice, I quickly got ready and reached the checkout counter. All 150 passengers were standing in a queue trying to check out.

Some of the passengers made the mistake of drinking bottled water that was placed in the hotel’s refrigerators, and water in this part of the world is more expensive than anything else. The airline did not want to pick up the tab, so each individual had to pay for their own water. Since I too had committed this grave sin, I stood there obediently and paid about $9 for a half used bottle of water. Finally we all boarded a bus that took us back to the airport.

6. And We Fly Again, Or Do We?
Once back at the airport, we got our passports and tickets back which was a big relief to everyone. The flight finally took off at 8:30 a.m. It was a beautiful day. The sun was out and everything looked upbeat. Everyone was happy to be in the air again. The flight had already been delayed for over ten hours and I, like all my fellow passengers, was looking forward to getting back. The pilot informed us that there was one small stopover on the island nation of Cyprus before we reached Frankfurt and that the aircraft would stay for 45 minutes. He also told us that we would have to stay in the plane. No one had any issues with that.

We reached Cyprus in about an hour and a half. The sky was clear and the water was shimmering and everyone was quite happy and content. A few new passengers boarded and the plane was cleared for take off. As the plane started the run for take off, I started admiring the beauty around me. The airport was right on the edge of the island. The runway ended and the ocean began. One part of me was happy to be in the air again while another part of me was feeling a bit sad for not being able spend time on this seemingly beautiful island.

We were halfway along the runway then the plane started to slow down. The pilot jammed the brakes and the plane started to shudder. It finally came to a full stop with only about a quarter of the runway left. The pilot brought the plane back to the terminal and there was confusion inside the plane, everyone wondering what had just happened. As the murmur started to grow, the pilot announced that this plane was not going to fly anymore. He said that it had the same engine trouble that had delayed the flight the day before. He also said that he was thankful to God to have noticed the problem while still on the ground and not after takeoff.

7. Back To The Ground
One by one we got off the plane and stepped foot on the ground. When I looked out, I saw that the airport was a small one, having only one terminal with 4 gates. After we got off we were all herded into one corner of the airport. About 150 passengers occupied about one fourth of the airport. The pilot and the other airline staff were nowhere to be found. And no one had a clue when the relief would arrive. Slowly the time started to slip by. With no information about what would happen next, everyone started to grow uneasy. The airport had minimal staffing and they were having a tough time handling so many people. There were only a handful of vending machines and no food court or eating area that could support 150 unhappy passengers.

As the unrest grew, the airport official became more and more hostile. Finally around 3 p.m. we were told by the airport authorities that Gulf Air was unable to fix the plane or find a replacement plane to fly all of us to our destinations. They also told us that the airline was trying to negotiate with other carriers to see if they would be willing to help us out. It was then that I realized that Gulf Air only had four long haul aircrafts – one was in NY, one in Delhi, one was already broken and was in the workshop, and the fourth one was the one we were on. So we were stuck in No Man’s Land again. On top of that there was no food to eat either.

8. Nightfall In Cyprus
The time started to slowly slide. Every now and then there was an announcement that we might be going with one airline or another, but it wouldn’t materialize. As the sun started to set, so did our hopes. Finally at around 8 p.m. we were told that there was no chance that we would be flying tonight and that some arrangements were being made to put us up in some hotel for the night. I hadn’t had much to eat since morning. So I asked the airport official to try to arrange for dinner for everyone. They assured us that all the arrangements had been made and that we would be taken care of at the hotel.

As we all got ready to spend the night again in an unknown place, we were informed of one more problem. The officials told us that it being a small airport, they did not have space to keep the checked-in luggage for 150 passengers. We were told that we would have to take our own checked in luggage with us to the airport and check it back in the next day. As if that was not enough, we were asked to surrender our passports and tickets. The reasoning given for this was the lack of adequate papers with us to stay in the country. Right! Wonderful logic! But by this time no one had much energy left to argue. After some discussion we agreed and were then asked to go towards a door to identify our luggage and take it with us to the airport. One by one we handed over our passports and tickets to one official and stepped into the doorway. As I stepped through that door, what I saw made my jaw drop. That door was actually the airport exit. It was night and I was standing outside the airport with what appeared to be luggage lined up on the road. YES – the entire luggage from the plane had been lined up in the airport parking lot and passengers were looking for their baggage. Just then the transportation to carry us to the hotels arrived. Considering the situation, it seemed appropriate.

The transportation was actually a convoy of 10 open air cargo trucks. I identified my baggage and loaded it onto the nearest truck myself. Then I also jumped onto that truck and thus started my 40 minute journey to the hotel. The truck ride was quite uneventful barring a few bumps and jerks. I had never in my wildest nightmares imagined riding in the back of a truck, in an unknown country, without knowing the language and without any papers to identify myself. By the time we arrived at the hotel it was past 10 p.m. I was famished, but the hotel’s kitchen was closed as it was too late. Finally the hotel arranged for some pizzas for the passengers and everyone got a slice or two to eat.

9. Finally We Fly Again
The next morning arrived and this time I had gotten a full night’s rest. We ate a good breakfast at the hotel and prepared for another uncertain day. The trucks arrived again and we loaded our baggage onto them and reached the airport. After checking in our luggage we were made to wait in the same section of the terminal. It was around 11 a.m. that the good news arrived. We were told that Swiss Air agreed to fly a special flight to pick us up and carry us to Amsterdam, and we would get another connecting flight to New York from there. The plane arrived around 3 p.m. and took us to Amsterdam. From there I took another flight and finally reached New York. In all the flight was delayed by over 45 hours with three unscheduled stopovers. I heaved a sigh of relief only after the plane had landed in NY and vowed never to fly with this airline again.

I never heard a word of apology from the airline after we arrived in NY. In fact all staff of this airline had vanished from the NY airport. The funny thing is that when my wife took the same flight 3 weeks later, the pilot apologized profusely for a 40 minute delay and everyone on that flight was wondering what all the fuss was about.

– Piyush Bhatnagar

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason August 6, 2011 at 11:59 am

The story could also be called "The Never Ending Story" as it must be the longest one on this site. It was a good read though, and definitely was a flight from hell!

Reply

Peace Lover August 6, 2011 at 7:02 pm

Ahhh The Never Ending Story, I love that film and the song of course!

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Belle August 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm

tl;dr

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Tribeca September 2, 2011 at 3:54 am

And yet, you had the time to reply to it. God forbid we get a story on a site asking for stories!

Clown.

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George McCall August 16, 2011 at 1:02 pm

1. Gulf Air – Bahrain airline. Why a direct flight to Abu Dhabi? It would have been a direct flight to Bahrain, then a change to flight to Frankfurt.

2. Swiss Air – Switzerland airline. Why a direct flight to Amsterdam? It would have been a direct flight to Zurich, then a change to flight to Amsterdam.

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chode August 19, 2011 at 8:03 am

“We are living in the New Age”/? WTF if you think that India is living in the new age you had better check your head checked, its a third world country. If you choose to fly on a third world airline you should expected everything to be broken. Next time stay home in India.

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Tribeca September 2, 2011 at 3:54 am

You're embarrassing the rest of us.

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Kailash September 30, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I agree that if you buy discounted tickets and fly less known airlines, you're likely to be bitten. I have to sympathise, usually it doesn't turn out THIS bad.

I'd like to know, why did everyone decide to take the flight to Dubai for the hotel? — I guess that was offered up, which is quite an interesting proposition. At least DXB would have a lot more connections, but they still couldn't get you on a safe flight home.

Delhi airport now (just went in June 2011) is quite modern, with wide open terminals, nice carpeting, lounges, coffee places and Vodaphone internet in the international terminal at least. As soon as you step outside though, you can feel the heat and humidity.

I didn't get to take the light-rail there into downtown New Delhi, but yes they have it, and that definitely suprised me.

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Thi Halpern January 4, 2013 at 3:07 pm

Wow wow, incredible!

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Niki October 6, 2014 at 10:45 am

Awesome story, read it at night, falling asleep. zzzzz

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cbird1057 August 19, 2015 at 12:20 am

Indeed, I am familiar with these 3-day, 72-hour travel ordeals. What is amazing about this one is that the passports keep getting taken before everyone is brought to a hotel. Very scary! I've been witness to the "Pile of Luggage on the Tarmac" as well, an incredible sight. After the first time it happens, it is no longer a flight from hell, just a soul-strengthening experience. I'm amazed at some of the inconveniences people have written about here on this website. They truly have no idea how bad it can get.

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