India - Domestic Airports

Well hello again, friends.

I have returned to the friendly confines of Mumbai and my home away from home. It is a bizarre thing to do business travel inside of business travel. Just as you mentally adjust to one hotel being "home," you then set out for a new city and a new hotel. I'm telling you, I have never felt farther from home than when I was in Delhi this past week. It was as if I had traveled to the other side of the globe for Mumbai and then had traveled to an entirely new planet when going to Delhi. And perhaps most alarming of all was the sheer delight that overtook me as I moved back into the Mumbai hotel and got reacquainted with the world as I currently know it: all the contents of one large suitcase and a backpack full of gadgets. Within the context of one of the largest cities, my world is paradoxically small.

We will get to the strange state of affairs that is Delhi but first we must review domestic air travel in India. I suggest your pour yourselves an adult beverage for two reasons: this post is likely to be long and there is an opportunity for a drinking game embedded within the story. For every stamp I collect, drink. For every security point I pass, chug. The fun will come when I pass a security point AND get a stamp! You’ll likely be adequately intoxicated by the end of the tale and that’s good. I think it’s how you should prepare yourselves for flying within India.

Net-net I'd say that domestic air travel on IndiGo actually exceeded most experiences on American carriers. My plane was clean, the flights were insanely punctual, the boarding process efficient, and the last-minute fares well within budget. I'd go so far as to say IndiGo has got their shit together in a country that can otherwise look/feel like pure chaos. In fact, my next post will be about IndiGo itself because its organized manner comes at a humorous price.

But of course that can't be the end of the story! What follows is a general account of getting from here to there.

I depart my hotel and get to the airport with a comfortable 90 minutes to go before the flight takes off. Before entering the airport I pull out my passport and my boarding pass. These two items must be inspected in order to get in the building. In classic Indian fashion there is a swarm of people at every door and no real line. If you politely wait for a queue to form you will be passed up time and time again. Check your manners at the door (literally) and begin to push your way along. Otherwise, you'll never get anywhere.

The man at the airport door reviews my passport and boarding pass. I'm legit so he stamps the paper and waves me through. Now I'm in the main terminal and must check in for the flight at the ticket counter, even though I've already done this at the hotel. If I hadn't, how would I have obtained a boarding pass to, um, board the airport? (You may as well check your logical reasoning with your manners at the door because neither skill set will be necessary at the airport.)

I reach the ticket counter that says "Hand Luggage Only" and am instructed very quickly that I am in the wrong line and must go to the other side. Being in the "wrong line" is also very common here but if I turned that into a drinking game you'd fall off your chairs drunk. So anyway, I go to the other side of the desks and begin to wait in line here. This line looks suspiciously slow and everyone has huge suitcases, animal crates, and God knows what. Executive decision: go back to the first counter and try again.

Back at the other side a woman motions me up to the podium. She takes my boarding pass, reviews it, and stamps it again. She also hands me one tag for each piece of carry-on luggage I have. This transaction takes 30 seconds and now I'm off to the security lines.

At the start of the security lines an agent reviews my passport and checks my boarding pass. I have two boarding documents now: the paper one I brought and a new ticket-like card. He stamps the card.

In the security lines you think you'll get to maintain some dignity because you're not asked to completely strip down here. Shoes stay on, some jackets stay on, toiletries stay packed, and the only item that must be put on display is your laptop. Hey, this ain't so bad! You even have the opportunity to lock up your laptop in the plastic bin as it slides along the security belt. I find this interesting because some things in India I would consider overkill (locking up a laptop that stays in plain sight for 3 seconds) and others totally lax (unattended metal detectors). But I play along like a good foreigner. When in Rome...

Before I can reclaim my bags I go through the metal detector and then into a curtained area with a security officer. She grunts and motions for me to stand on a podium and place my boarding pass on a table nearby. I'm wearing heels today. The combination of my heels, my 67", her 58", and the inspection podium cause her to practically jump in order to get the wand high enough on my body. Same thing happens when she full-on gropes me all over. There is no modest, "I'll use the back of my gloved hands" method here.

Satisfied by our encounter, she stamps my boarding ticket and motions to the table for me to pick it up there. I feel like she's left some money on the nightstand after a transactional night together. Then I decide that taking off your shoes actually feels more dignified than leaving them on if this is the trade-off.

If you're still reading allow me to note that I have traveled all of about 75 feet at this point. This is a lot of people to pass in 75 feet. But this is also India. A picture is coming, I promise.

Outside of the curtained area I collect my things and ensure that the two tags given to me by the ticket counter lady have been stamped. I cannot board the flight with my hand luggage unless their tags have been stamped, too. Everybody and everything is stamped up so I'm good to go and I look for my gate.

An amazing thing happens at airport gates in India. People queue up to queue up. And they do it in precise, single-file lines. Yes, there is some initial line-jumping that takes place but all in all this is one of the arenas in which things seem to sort themselves out beautifully.

40 minutes before our scheduled take-off they announce our flight and the single-file line begins to fill the actual queue for boarding buses. The buses will take you to your plane; Delhi uses buses while Mumbai employs jetways. At the end of the bus line but before the door outside are two airline employees who check boarding cards. One will review my boarding card and one will check my luggage tags for their security stamps.

I proceed through the building door to the bus parking area and laugh to myself at the flight attendants who are dressed in parkas, gloves, and scarves. It's 55* F and sunny. There are two of them at a small table about 15 feet from the building door I just came out of. When I reach them, they ask to see my boarding card and I oblige. This card hasn't left my sweaty palm in the last 30 minutes and the ink from the multiple stamps is starting to bleed. I'm left wondering what good these things do if there are so many of them you can't distinguish one from the next. But I don't make the rules around here!

Okay, so the flight attendants by the buses have just checked my boarding card. Now, a dude not 5 feet from them inspects my luggage tags and then directs me to get on the bus. While waiting for my fellow passengers to board I watch a pattern unfold. The baggage dude for the bus also has a metal detection wand. He only uses it on the men and he is extra thorough on men under 45. Hmmm. The ACLU would be all over this in no time.

And...we're off to go find our plane!
A quick jaunt around the tarmac brings us to my chariot in the sky. We all speedily get off the bus and move toward the boarding stair. This part causes me slight anxiety because I'm teetering in heels and am moving a suitcase with a horde of people who are acting like this is the last plane out of Delhi. But, recall that I left my manners at the curbside dropoff so I push with the rest of 'em and make my way along.

I notice that about half of the crowd completely bypasses the stairs and walks toward the back of the plane. Well, shoot! IndiGo has two sets of stairs so passengers can board at both the front and back of the plane. We all get on board remarkably fast and people are seated in no time - but not before a flight attendant reviews my boarding card at the plane's door. Delhi to Mumbai? Check. Bags stamped? Check.

By now I'm feeling thoroughly examined and yet quite content with the experience. We're in the air and cruising down south towards "home." I pull out the laptop and do some work to pass the time. A little over an hour into our two hour flight the plane has begun its initial descent. We linger between 30,000 and 20,000 feet for 40 minutes and my ears are quite displeased. This has happened on every flight within Indian airspace for me so far, which is three flights, so I don't think it's just one pilot's style. I know nothing about flying aircraft but I can't help but wonder if it takes us so long to descend because the thick smog prevents you from affirmatively locating the ground before the wheels actually touch down.

Anyway, we've arrived in Mumbai on time. Two behaviors that transcend all borders are the immediate powering up of cell phones to say, "Hi, I've landed," and the race to deplane as you knock out other passengers with elbows and luggage. I join the stream of travelers headed toward the jetway and things are moving along until I reach the plane door. There's a security guard and he's checking boarding cards.

Are. You. Kidding. Me.

Riddle me this, Batman. Where the hell would have I gone between crossing the plane's threshold in Delhi and re-crossing it here in Mumbai? NOWHERE, unless I had wings of my own. Which I don't, obviously.

Such logic does not matter to overpopulated India. There are jobs to make so jobs can be had and this guy's job is to check my stamp-saturated, now-extinct boarding pass.

With my boarding card inspected one last time I am free to move off the jetway and go find my driver in the arrivals zone. This is the point in the journey where you would think the foot traffic moves at its fastest because we're here! Let's go find our loved ones and be on our merry ways!

But no. My previously expeditious travel mates have slowed to a snail's pace and are walking 10 abreast through the airport hallway, leaving me no room for my clacking heels and wheeled luggage to pass.

Such is air travel in India.


Meigan said...

Wow...were you flying at dawn? That could be why people were queuing up to queue up--the masses were still asleep. The business people are the one who have heard about queuing and they're the ones who fly at the crack of dawn.

Impressive about getting your boarding pass checked while getting off your plane! I can't say that has happened to me...yet.

What usually dumbfounds me are the number of people who TRULY CANNOT find their seat, or who even don't know how to go about looking for it.

Words cannot fully describe it...Incredible India.


Catherine said...

Yes, I flew BOM->DEL at 7:30am on a Tuesday and then DEL->BOM at 9:30a on a Friday. Lots of business folk on the 7:30am flight. 99% men.
The boarding card check while deplaning was unbelievable. But as you say, words cannot fully describe it here!


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