Another week, another trip to Delhi on Air India. This time I had to be somewhere at 8am, so I flew up the previous evening and cashed in some Starwood points for the Maurya Sheraton (probably the best value Category 2 property out there).
11 March 2003
Mumbai Chattrapati Shivaji to Delhi Indira Gandhi International
The flight was due out at 320pm, so I left home immediately after lunch for the quick drive to the airport. Arrived at Terminal II-C just before 2pm and headed over to the domestic checkin counters where the only employee on duty was about to head out at the end of his shift. The international terminal that bustles like an Egyptian bazaar when the sun goes down was an absolute ghost town by day. I hung around for about 10 minutes but since no replacement was forthcoming, I decided to schlep my way down to the international counters where I located a supervisor.
The supe apologized for the problem and gave me the bad news that we were going to be delayed due to a technical snag with our assigned 747-337 Combi. On the bright side though, our replacement was going to be my "big brother", one of the last 4 remaining 747-237Bs in the Air India fleet. As these are in all-passenger configuration, this meant that we needed additional crew and the delay was coming about as they were called in from home. This also meant that I would not get a chance to sample the new Business Class seats which will not be installed in the dinosaurs of the fleet.
I was finally checked in and photographed, receiving my boarding pass for 3K together with a lounge invitation. I headed through the special "domestic immigration" checkpoint where my boarding pass was affixed with the appropriate red stamp, handed in my "domestic customs" declaration and headed on to the Maharaja Lounge.
Air India has 2 lounges at their Terminal II-C in BOM, one located just beyond customs on the checkin level and the other located next to gate 19 on the transit level. Although the latter is slightly larger, the former is my favorite for a number of reasons. 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. Finally, there are television sets located all over the lounge. This was key, because Australia were playing New Zealand in the Cricket World Cup and everyone wanted to watch!
A waiter came around as I settled down and offered me a drink. I asked for a Coke, and he brought it along with a plate of freshly made chicken sandwiches. Most of the folks were congregated around the bar at the other end of the lounge where the big screen TV was located, but I settled myself on one of the corner couches with a regular TV set and my laptop. My only gripe with the lounge is its lack of windows (the entire airport has no publicly accessible windows facing the airside, allegedly for security reasons), but on a visit to the mens room I discovered that there is a panoramic view of the tarmac available from the corner stall for those diehard plane fanatics who can stand the odour and the ambience.
Time passed quickly as Shane Bond ripped through the Australian batting lineup and I caught up with some work. Due to resurfacing work on the main runway 09-27 until 5pm (the shorter runway 14-32 is not available for Boeing 747s), our departure was rescheduled for 455pm. Finally 430pm rolled around and one of the staffers came by to inform us that the flight was now ready for boarding. I dragged myself away from Australia's innings with the scoreboard reading a shocking 87 for 7 and headed down to gate 16. Security was typically efficient and even though I was randomly selected for secondary screening, I was aboard the aircraft within a few minutes with minimal hassle.
Today's aircraft was VT-EGA named Samudra Gupta. The aircraft was named, as all Air India's 747 Classics are, after an ancient Indian emperor. Samudra Gupta had been the patriarch of the Gupta dynasty and ruled India in the fourth century AD. His reign is notable because of his rather controversial (even at the time) Aryan supremacy policies within his kingdom and his wars of conquest to enforce them. But I digress...
My boarding pass was checked at door 1L and the friendly Air Hostess escorted me to my seat 3K in the nose of the aircraft. We had a fairly full flight today with all but one seat in the lower Business Class section filled, and I assume a similar load upstairs judging by the steady stream of passengers heading up the spiral staircase. Luckily for me the vacant seat happened to be 3J, so I was able to spread out nicely. Economy Class was wide open, but that was a result of the last minute substitution of an aircraft with over 100 extra seats. The crew came around with pre-departure drinks (a choice between Coconut water, sweet lime juice and watermelon juice) as well as a choice of hot or cold towels. Nice and refreshing in the afternoon heat.
Doors closed at 455pm exactly and we pushed back as I watched an Air Mauritius 767 pull into a gate further down the concourse. The safety demo was screened as we taxied to runway 27 where the resurfacing work was still going strong, despite the fact that it was now past 5pm. We held short of the threshold as a Gulf Air 767 came in to land on the cross runway 14-32, but as 515pm rolled by the workers on runway 27 still had not moved. Suddenly, a man hops out of a parked jeep with a cellphone to his ear and starts gesturing frantically at the workers and pointing at us. Good lord. Did it really take him 15 minutes to realize that the giant 747 waiting on a runway behind him was there because it wanted to take off??? The folks packed up their equipment and skedaddled within minutes, showing efficiency that is only seen in Indian workers around closing time.
We waited as a ratty old Alliance Air 737-200 came in on 14-32 across us and then rolled onto the active runway and opened up throttles without delay. No matter how much thrust modern engines can deliver, there is absolutely no sensation of power that even remotely compares to the good old PW JT9D engine on a takeoff roll. It starts with a whine that quickly develops into a deep throated roar and leads to a steady build up of G forces as you accelerate down the runway, rattling along like a can on a string with the vibrations until suddenly you break free from the earth and climb into the sky, free as a bird and yet another example of the wonders of physics.
It was a lovely cloudless day in Mumbai and we climbed out over the beaches of Juhu with a panoramic view of the city unfolding beneath us, shimmering like an oasis through the pollution, smog and heat. We turned north and set course for Delhi as the earth below us turned from overdeveloped urban to abjectly rural as only an Indian landscape can do in such a short time. As we flew over Gujarat, the crew came around with the snack service. Today's choices were either some veggie concoction (which I didn't even bother considering) or a chicken tikka kabab platter (which I picked). It was excellent, with the perfect tenderness and spice.
The green fields of Gujarat yielded the brown deserts of Rajasthan as Samudra Gupta steadily hurtled through the blue sky, carrying me towards the nation's capital. I relaxed with a drink and looked out of the window as I had done so many times over the years on this very aircraft and so many of its brothers. I was struck with an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. My entire childhood had been spent growing up on these planes. They were like family to me, their names as familiar to me as those of my cousins. Shahjehan, Vikramaditya, Rajendra Chola.... they personified a perfect mix between the exotic and the familiar. So many times had I as a young boy stared in awe at them across a rain-soaked tarmac in Frankfurt or Tokyo or Nairobi as they taxied along under the reliable power of their JT9Ds. And now, just as Samudra Gupta flew me into the twilight of an Indian evening, he too approached the twilight of his long and loyal career with Air India. In all likelihood I would never fly on this plane again as the unglamorous routes it is banished to in old age rarely correspond to my travel patterns. Today, fate had conspired to throw Samudra Gupta my way and I would make the most of this encounter with an old, beloved friend.
I took a walk. I strolled the length of Samudra Gupta from nose to tail, pausing to soak in the atmosphere. Memories came flooding back to me as I passed through the aircraft. Here sat the 5 year old for his first landing into Kai Tak. There is the lavatory where the 12 year old was horribly airsick in Rome. The galley where the 7 year old stayed awake the entire redeye drinking can after can of Coca-Cola. As I walked back towards my seat, the Inflight Supervisor stopped me. He said that I looked familiar and verified my identity. I confirmed it with a smile. My mother had trained him when he joined Air India 30 years ago and he inquired about her. We chatted for a while and then the seatbelt sign came on. I returned to 3K as we descended into a Delhi evening and touched down safely. Samudra Gupta had delivered me yet again. We taxied to the gate and I was one of the first to disembark. As I stepped onto the jetway, I turned back and kissed the outer skin of the aircraft to say goodbye to my friend. Even though I may never fly on Samudra Gupta again, he will always soar through the clouds in my heart and in my dreams.
11/12 March 2003
New Delhi, India
I walked through both immigration and customs without anyone so much as glancing my way, emerging into the arrivals area where I made a beeline for one of the TV sets to check the score. To my utter surprise, Australia had not only managed to convert the despair of 87/7 into a somewhat respectable 206, but they were in the process of destroying the Kiwi batting to boot. I headed outside shaking my head in disbelief and caught a cab to the Maurya Sheraton.
My cab driver was a very friendly sort and chatted with me all the way there about my travels and interestingly enough, about cellular phones. It was an interesting ride as he educated me about the special promotions that each provider was offering right now. He seemed pleased that I had thrown my lot in with Orange, but thanks to the crappy support they have provided me recently that made one of us.
Checkin at the Maurya Sheraton was interesting. SPG awards are booked anyway on the Corporate Floor, but as an SPG Gold I was entitled to an upgrade. Additionally, I also had a one-class upgrade certificate from the Sheraton Plus program that I intended to use and had requested in advance. To my surprise, the front desk had no clue about either of these policies and had to make a phonecall to figure out what was going on. After muttering in Hindi (which I don't think he realized that I understood), he came back to me and told me that my room on the Executive Floor indeed already reflected the double upgrade. Rather than argue the matter, I expressed skepticism but accepted the assignment. I did however request a late checkout that was granted for 530pm the next day.
The room itself was comfortable but nothing particularly special. I worked for a while and watched Australia polish off New Zealand for a very convincing victory. That team will be extremely hard to beat. Around 9pm, I headed down for the dinner buffet at the Pavilion restaurant. This buffet has received excellent reviews for the food, and I concur with that assessment. However, the denizens of Delhi are animals. They are loud, obnoxious and have no idea how to control their kids. The poor restaurant staff were going crazy as one child ran around the buffet tables, helping himself to food with his fingers and neccessitating the replacement of the entire dish as a result. Other folks pushed and shoved in the buffet line, reversed direction and totally messed up the flow or (and I'm not making this up) kept the serving spoons with them after helping themselves. Nonetheless, the food was excellent and almost worth the other hassles.I headed back to the room after a good meal and turned in.
The next day was spent primarily dealing with work and I only made it back to the hotel around 5pm after a highly unproductive and frustrating day. Air India had flights back to BOM at 915pm, 955pm and 1005pm, so I decided to aim for the earliest one in the hope of getting back home before midnight.
12 March 2003
Delhi Indira Gandhi International to Mumbai Chattrapati Shivaji
Unfortunately the presence of some vague VIP or the other caused one of those typical Delhi traffic jams en route to the airport, so what is usually a 20 minute drive wound up taking longer than an hour. I finally arrived at the airport around 730pm. To my surprise, I saw a big crowd by entrance gate number 3 with a line at least 100 deep to get into the building. Those familiar with Delhi will recall that your travel documents are examined at the entrance to the building to allow only passengers to approach the checkin area.
Closer inspection revealed that the line was not moving, and consisted exclusively of Japanese tourists. Evidently their tour bus had dropped them off here, but the tour leader with their travel documents had not arrived yet so security would not let them in and told them to line up to the side. Accordingly, they neatly blocked the entrance for everyone else. Only a marriage of Indian bureaucracy and Japanese patience could have produced this ironic stalemate as an offspring.
I strode confidently past the tourists to the front of the line where the balding, potbellied security officer was sitting on a stool sipping from a stainless steel cup of tea while his loaded submachine gun swung gently from his shoulders. I offered him my ticket which he proceeded to examine upside down before waving me through with an extremely bored expression. Check-in was smooth, but alas Business Class was booked full and I was assigned seat 24G in coach on the 915pm Airbus. I had the option to stick around for Samudra Gupta again on his way back from Tokyo an hour later, but decided that I wanted to get home more. So much for true love.
The only international departures at this hour were from the other wing of the international terminal (Royal Nepal to Kathmandu, Turkmenistan to Ashkabad, Kazhakhstan to Almata and Uzbekistan to Tashkent) so there were no officers manning the immigration checkpoints on this side. Accordingly, a line was developing with the handful of domestic passengers headed to Mumbai on the trio of Air India flights. Bah, said I. Lines are for the proletariat. I lifted the flimsy chain that signified that the lane was closed and walked through to the Customs desk beyond. The officer seated there simply smiled and stamped me through for both "domestic immigration" and "domestic customs". Needless to say, the good folks standing in line soon followed my example.
Interestingly enough, our assigned gate today was the rarely used gate 11 which also serves as the high-security gate when VIP passengers are traveling. The jetway has two entrances, one that opens directly to the landside VIP lounge (bypassing customs, immigration and baggage claim) and the other that opens to the arrivals corridor through a small door beside gate 10. For departures, gates 10 and 11 share a separate departure lounge with its own security checkpoint. With only 25 passengers joining the flight from Delhi today, the staff at this checkpoint had plenty of down time. They used this very productively to gather around the TV sets showing Kenya playing Zimbabwe in cricket, leaving one poor sod to halfheartedly conduct the entire screening process himself.
Once my person and belongings had been suitable certified as non-threatening by the solo screener, I headed over to the TV sets myself and joined the rest of the security staff. Kenya had been the Cinderella of this World Cup and they were about to pull off another upset over Zimbabwe, with the fringe benefit being that this would ensure that India avoided playing Australia until the finals. We watched in awe as Maurice Odumbe gave us one of the most impressive displays of offensive batting seen in a long time as he carted the poor Zimbabwean bowlers to every corner of the field. As the match ended, there was a unanimous consensus among us that Kenya was a new cricketing force to be reckoned with.
While we were watching the game, the rest of the passengers (only 26 joining at Delhi for the domestic tag leg to Mumbai) had filtered into the departure lounge. Finally just before 830pm, our aircraft was seen on short finals from Dammam, Saudi Arabia before touching down and taxiing to the gate. Today's plane was VT-EVH named Tungabhadra. She is one of those planes that has been around the block a few times. Originally built in 1988, she served with Wardair in Canada and later with Canadi>n Airlines. After Canadi>n phased out the A310s, she was purchased by Polaris and leased to Kuwait Airways during the post-Gulf War rebuilding phase. Following that, she served in Lebanon with Middle East Airlines until 2001 when Air India acquired her on lease. This would be the first time that I would be flying on her, so I was pleased.
Boarding commenced around 9pm and the passengers were quickly herded aboard with minimal hassles. Business Class was full but there were barely 100 passengers in coach, with all but a handful in transit from Dammam. The crew came around with packages of a mango drink as a pre-flight beverage while we pushed back. The safety demo was screened during our rather lengthy taxi to the runway and the captain welcomed us aboard with the news that we would have an extremely turbulent ride down to Mumbai with a flight time of just over 90 minutes.
We were airborne just after 935pm and the turbulence soon began. The crew did an excellent job of serving the meals (I picked the lamb curry) without bringing the carts into the aisles and virtually all the passengers had finished eating before we hit the worst patch over Gujarat. I tried to watch the video magazine being screened on the overhead monitors, but the constant bouncing made me feel rather nauseous so I closed my eyes and relaxed with one of the music channels instead.
After what seemed like an eternity we began our descent into Mumbai and relatively smoother skies. Our approach to runway 27 was somewhat tentative and we touched down hard, bouncing once before decelerating and turning off just before the Indian Airlines terminal. Unfortunately, all gates were full at Terminal II-C so we were assigned a remote stand which we taxied to, pulling in beside an Indian Airlines A320. The stairs rolled up and I disembarked quickly, but not quick enough to catch the first bus back to the terminal. Accordingly, I had a chance to stroll around the aircraft under the watchful gaze of security before the next bus arrived and loaded us up. Neither immigration nor customs even looked at me as I strode past waving my boarding pass with the huge "D" for Domestic on it. I was in the car park within 5 minutes, heading home for a few hours before leaving for London the next evening. Such is the life of a traveler.