7 January, 2000
Mumbai (Bombay) Shivaji International to London Heathrow
The scheduled flight departure was 525am, but this was rescheduled first till 555am and then to 625am because weather in DEL would affect some connecting passengers. AI called me 2 days before the flight and informed me about the rescheduling and also advised me to turn up at least 2 hrs before departure because of likely delays due to heightened security.
The security at the airport was positively stifling. Every car entering airport property was stopped at a roadblock and searched (pop the trunk and explosives-sniffing dog gives the car a once over). Entry into the airport terminal itself was restricted only to passengers and we had to pass through security just to get in. All bags had to be X-rayed before you could even approach the check-in counters.
This was the first time I was flying out of the new Air India terminal 2-C at Shivaji International Airport in BOM. The terminal was opened in November and is quite impressive, although somewhat empty since a lot of the retail stores were not open at that early hour (or were closed because of the security). Check-in at the Executive Class counter was very quick and painless, and I was given VIP treatment. I was escorted us to the brand new Maharaja lounge so that I wouldn't have to wait in line while they got someone to complete all my immigration/customs formalities.
The lounge was absolutely incredible. It is the third Maharaja lounge at BOM (the others are in Terminal 2-B and 2-A with another one under construction in 2-C to replace the 2-A location) and it opened barely 3 weeks ago. It is quite positively one of the best lounges I have seen ANYWHERE in the world. It is very tastefully decorated in Rajasthani style with soft beige colors and comfortable lighting. There are shower facilities available, as well as a kitchen that is staffed around the clock in case you desire a snack while waiting for a connection. TV monitors flash departure information in extra-large type so that you don't have to get up from your seat to read them and are located all over the lounge. There is also a "music listening area" where you can take a cubicle and choose from a wide collection of Indian and Western music as well as conference facilities and cubicles with Internet access. The attendant reccomended that we try the breakfast muffins since they were fresh out of the oven and I must admit that they were extremely good! I spent about 30 minutes in the lounge, at which point the call came through from gate 18 that they were ready to board us.
There was another security checkpoint before entering the gate area and the line was pretty long since AI had two 744 flights to LHR/JFK and LHR/ORD leaving within 30 mins of each other as well as a 744 to HKG/KIX, a 742 to DHA, A310s to BLR and MAA/SIN and an AB4 to CCJ/DXB. Fortunately, the Executive Class passengers got to use a separate checkpoint and we were whisked through amid glares from the waiting masses. There was yet another security check on the jetway where EVERYONE (including all the airline staff servicing the flight) was screened before stepping onto the aircraft. All the security was a bit of a drag, but I am sure everyone felt pretty damn safe after it!!!
My seat was 18B - an aisle seat in the last row of the upper deck. The aircraft was a B747-437 with registration VT-ESN and named "Tanjore" after a temple complex (all AI's 744s are named after temples, the 742s are named after Emperors and the Airbuses are named after rivers). It isthe second oldest 744 in AI's fleet and the age showed a little. The personal TV system was inoperational which ticked me off a bit, and the seat controls were still the old "push-button" type rather than the electronic controls on the newer 744s. We had a full load in Executive class for the BOM-LHR sector, including THREE lap babies travelling with their parents. Fortunately, two of them were assigned the bulkhead seats right at the front, but the third one was a couple rows ahead of me across the aisle.
We were held up till almost 7am because of 32 connecting passengers from HYD, which meant that the two BOM-LHR flights would now be literally taxiing out together. We pushed back first and were airborne at 710am from runway 27 with an announced flight time of 8:55.
The cabin crew were 2 short of a full complement for the flight (AI uses 20 F/As on the 744 + 1 supervisor) which meant that the service suffered a little as a result. The amenity kits and headphones were distributed only after take-off, and there were no hot-towels offered on ground, although they did offer us a choice of fresh orange juice, apple juice, watermelon juice or coconut water.
The first meal service was breakfast. The menu cards were still the December "Kathakali" design, rather than the January "Bharatnatyam". There were four choices - two each for Vegetarian and non-Vegetarian passengers. I chose the Omelette with sides of grilled fish and potatoes (the other choice was scrambled eggs with sides of chicken and potatoes). The vegetarian passengers got to choose between a Paneer Bhurji Dosa (scrambled cottage cheese with spices wrapped in a rice pancake) or an Uttapam (a south Indian breakfast dish made from bread and onions). The breakfast was downright awful. The omelette tasted like someone had spilled an entire packet of sugar into the mixture when cooking. The grilled fish was ok, but the potatoes tasted like rubber. I ate the fish and tried to fill myself on the pretty decent warm croissants that they brought around.
The first entertainment program screened was the BBC News. Fortunately, the overhead monitors were decently spaced in the cabin so the loss of Personal TVs was not a big deal (except for choice of programming). This was followed by the same episode of Frasier that I saw last month on Delta and the previous month on United. I decided to try and sleep at this point.
About an hour into my nap, I was awakened by the "lap baby" across the aisle wailing loudly. The "Air Hostess" offered the poor mother an assortment of devices to quiet the child, but the only thing that seemed to work was to leave the window blind open and let the kid watch the clouds float by. Unfortunatey, that meant that the glare from outside fell directly where my face was. I tried using the eyemask from the amenity kit to shut out the light, but it wasn't quite the same. The poor Air Hostess asked the mother to close the blinds, but no sooner was that done did the kid begin howling again until the blinds were raised. I decided to cut my losses and watch "Bowfinger" while silently praying that the damn kid would fall asleep watching the clouds.
After the movie, I did manage to grab a couple more hours of sleep while a Hindi film was screened and then it was time for lunch. This was much better than breakfast (that wasnÕt too hard though). I had the Gosh Kofta Curry (meatballs with egg) which came with rice and spiced mushrooms as the vegetable. Desert was excellent as always - an almond flavored gateau. The basket of fresh fruit was brought around after that, as was a cheese board (not as good as the one in first class though) and then a tray of "Fantasie" chocolates.
With about an hour left in the flight, the captain came around to chat with the passengers who were awake. He pointed out a Turkish Airlines A310 flying 4000 feet below us on a parallel course for Heathrow. I was surprised to see how quickly we "overtook" it. Perhaps 4 engines are better than 2 after all!
As we were crossing the English Channel, he came over the PA system and announced that we were being placed in a holding pattern for LHR and anticipated about 15-20 minute delay. That turned into almost 35 minutes and we finally touched down at Heathrow after 9:31 flying time. What really infuriated me was that the other BOM-LHR flight which had taxied out right BEHIND us at BOM was already parked at a gate.
Anyway, once again the captain comes over the PA system and announces that we have been assigned gate 23 at Terminal 3 and we would be going in as soon as the UA aircraft parked there left. We waited another 10 minutes and then finally taxied in. However, once we moved into position, we sat for about 5 minutes but the jetway did not move towards us. Suddenly, we start pushing back again out of the gate area. I was pretty confused. No sooner were we clear of the gate than a BA 744 taxies right in to our assigned gate. What the hell was BA doing at Terminal 3 anyway??? So we sit on the tarmac another 5-10 minutes and finally we move towards a remote parking bay (next to a VS A340). By the time the airstairs were finally rolled up, we had been on ground at LHR for almost 40 minutes.
7 January, 2000
London Heathrow to Chicago O'Hare
Of course, with this last minute gate change, the ground staff hadn't had enough time to organize buses to get the pax back to the terminal. So we waited ANOTHER 10 minutes before three buses showed up, accompanied by four mean looking security guys with sub-machine guns. They formed a corridor between the bottom of the stairs and the bus and watched the deplaning passengers very suspiciously. Then one security guy accompanied each bus back to the terminal. Once all the LHR pax were off, the remaining security guy came aboard with another chap in a suit (carrying a concealed semi-automatic in a shoulder holster) and between them they checked the passports of every single one of the 150-odd people left on board within the next 30 minutes.
The relief crew for the LHR-ORD sector showed up only about 60 minutes after we had arrived. Turns out that no one informed their bus driver about the change in gate, so he took them to the LHR-JFK aircraft by mistake (AI had three 744s on ground at LHR during this drama so the confusion was somewhat understandable). They boarded and got settled in (as did the joining pax) but by now we had missed our departure slot. So we waited on ground for another 45 minutes until one became available (while watching the JFK flight which left BOM AFTER us take off from LHR right on time).
Finally we got underway - after almost 3 hours on ground at LHR. Flying time to Chicago was announced at a rather brisk 8:10 which meant that we would only be arriving about 2 hrs behind schedule - still enough time for me to make my connections. Thankfully, all three lap babies had left at LHR so now there were only 23 of us left upstairs, and with a complete crew complement the service was MUCH better.
The first service was a quick drink service (heaven knows we needed it after LHR). I had a vodka-orange which they made with fresh orange juice and a slice of orange. Ahhhh! This was followed immediately by the meal service (lunch for the LHR pax and dinner for us BOM pax). I chose the Kesari Malai Murg (chicken in a creamy nut sauce) which came once again with rice and vegetables. It was excellent - the chicken was very tender and the sauce wasn't at all dry. The other non-vegetarian option was Trout in lemon sauce with potatoes and green beans. The food was accompanied by a delicious Chardonnay. Desert was a fruit salad, followed once again by the fresh fruit basket, the cheese board and the tray of chocolates. On the reccomendation of the Flight Purser, I decided to try his special "Decaf Irish Cream" concoction and it did not disappoint either. Quite an interesting drink, albeit a little on the strong side!
During lunch, the screens were showing another round of sitcoms (Cheers and Perfect Strangers) and that was followed by "Wild Wild West" with Will Smith and Kevin Kline. I started to watch, but it was a really bad movie so I quit and decided to sleep again. This was much easier, now that there weren't any wailing kids to worry about. I slept fitfully for about 4 hours and by the time I awakened we were over Canada and the film being screened was the Hindi "Ashok Pandit" (with English subtitles) about a professor who falls in love with his student, who happens to be the daughter of a mob boss etc... It was pretty bad, but definitely a step up from Bowfinger and Wild Wild West.
I was feeling a little hungry now, so I asked if they had anything to eat. Sure enough, I was presented with a plate of sandwiches. One was a tandoori chicken sandwich and the other was smoked salmon. Both were excellent.
By now we were just about 40 minutes out of O'Hare so I proceeded to go freshen up and soon enough we touched down after a flight of 8:10. The temperature was exactly 60 degrees lower than it was when we boarded in BOM. We taxied to our usual gate M16 and I was the third person off the aircraft from door 2L. There was no line at Immigration and my bag was among the first few to emerge (thank God for PRIORITY tags!). Customs barely paid me a glance and I walked through into the baggage transfer area where I handed my bags over to the NW agent for my connections.