By Air Cmde TK Chatterjee(retd)
To any person who spends more time in a year away from the motherland, homecoming is an auspicious occasion. Even after numerous such visits, every one of them seems unique, for they are mixed with unmatched emotions that can only be felt, they are difficult to express in words.
It is with such feelings that on the morning of Diwali morning I, with my wife and my 3-year-old granddaughter landed in Delhi. What followed till we reached our home in Kolkata is an extremely hilarious, sometimes exasperating, sequence of events which needs to be told.
All through the flight, masks were worn only by the cabin crew and not by any passenger. Did not find it surprising, since masks are no longer mandatory in public transport in the EU. But half an hour before landing suddenly announcements came over the PA system asking everyone to mask up. They even came round and distributed masks to all. I was surprised at this late awakening to the dangers of the pandemic by the airline! I inquired of a cabin crew member, and she smiled and said “it’s a Delhi requirement”. On alighting at Delhi, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all ground staff was dressed in colorful attires on account of Diwali, the ‘Fete de Lumiére’. The men were in designer kurtas, the women all dolled up… but no one was wearing masks! But constant announcements were made about Covid protocols and ‘mandatory’ requirement of wearing masks within airport premises!
Also Read | Airlines clock over 10 m flyers in September
Though Dreamliners are known for their spacious interiors, sitting through the night in economy class takes its toll even on the fittest, which my wife certainly is not. So, to avoid the long walk of Terminal 3, with three trolley bags and a sleepy child, the service of buggy cart was sought from an airline ground staff. The staff, which seemed rather busy with a group of foreigners (white), openly disliked the intrusion by another passenger (brown), he instructed us to wait at the ‘Buggy Zone’ which was just round the corner. We turned a few corners and found no such marked zone. We inquired of another passing staff member, and she exclaimed ‘What Buggy Zone?’ We knew we were taken for a ride, sans buggy! Anyway, she hailed a passing buggy going the other way, and we boarded it gratefully.
It was from the Buggy driver that I learnt that in T3 Arrival, there are just 3 buggies with 3 staff on 8 hours duty rotation, with no fixed schedules or ‘on demand’ calling facility. The expansive terminal, which has a capacity of 34 million passengers per year and is the 8th largest terminal in the world, is saving on petty passenger comforts. GMR …it’s not fair.
Another surprise awaited at the immigration counter. The gentleman at the counter wanted to know who the child with us was. When I said that she was my granddaughter, he asked if I had the authority to have her with us. I was indeed surprised. “Do I need any, this is not the first time I am travelling with her?” I asked. “Yes, from the parents” he declared. “Have you conveyed this requirement to the airlines? At least to airlines of Indian registration? I was not asked for any such document by the airline or the French immigration, when I left Paris”, I countered. That got me the million dollar reply of the Indian bureaucracy…“That is not our job”. Period. I did not yet know that I shall have the privilege of hearing this statement again in the same airport the same day. “So now what?” I asked, to which the gentleman had actually no answer. True to the system, he yelled for his supervisor, who was nearby and arrived promptly, with a visible air of authority around him. The imbroglio of suspected human trafficking was explained to him, and here I must give credit to the supervisor for his quick thinking, he knelt in front of the kid and pointing towards me, he asked “Who is he?” My granddaughter smiled, as if surprised at his inexcusable ignorance, and drawled in a sleepy voice “Dada”. The supervisor smiled at me and said, “You can go, Sir”. Hail, King Solomon.
Also Read | SpiceJet to fly at full capacity in winter, Go First flights to fall 40%
The next surprise was at the domestic terminal for the Delhi-Kolkata leg. After an uneventful check in, I reached the security enclosure and submitted my baggage, body and soul to the CISF for security check. On crossing the physical check after an exchange of ‘Happy Diwali’ with the smart soldier, I found another smart soldier waiting at the X-ray counter with my handbag with a frown on his face. “Are you carrying some Diwali diyas (lamps) in your bag?” he asked. I was taken aback initially but then realized he was referring to a box of golf balls. “They are golf balls” I said quite nonchalantly. He seemed confused, “Are golf balls allowed in hand baggage?” he asked his partner at the counter. He did not know either. So, as I expected at this stage, they called the supervisor. A smart lady officer said, “Golf balls are not allowed in cabin baggage, Sir”. “Since when? Is it listed at the check-in counters among the various forbidden things in cabin baggage?” I asked. “No Sir it is not, but there is a circular dated Feb 2022 which has forbidden the carriage of golf balls in cabin baggage” she said with absolute authority. “But how is the general public to know that? Have you put that out in the public domain?” was my sincere query, surprised that I was with the impunity with which the responsible officer was trying to defend her actions. Now came the classic reply that I had heard sometime back at the immigration counter, “That is not our job”. Period. I could not fathom how golf balls could be dangerous in Indian skies, when they are obviously not in European skies, since the same handbag, with the same contents, came through the EU aviation security system.
So, I was sent through a short cut route back to the check in counter to check in my hand baggage. There was another pretty girl who said I had three checked in baggage already. So once again a supervisor was called in, who very sternly told me that this was the fourth bag, and I must pay for its weight at Rs. 630 /- per kg. My explanation that it was not I, but the security system did not want golf balls in the cabin, and hence my bag must go into the baggage hold, did not cut any ice. The dolled up pretty girl with a lost look on her face and the stern supervisor, whose demeanor would put Chenghiz Khan to shame, wanted no reason whatsoever, only money. I asked if any of them played golf? They shook their heads. I was not surprised; golf is a gentleman’s game.
With a heavy heart, I dumped my precious cargo, a box of Taylormade, into a dustbin at the domestic terminal of T3, IGI Airport. Finders keepers.
It is not the discomfort of senior citizens of walking the length of the terminal building, neither the efforts to prevent human trafficking, nor the aviation security system, that is so very troubling. It is the disconnect between laterals and verticals that is surprising and the impunity with which those in authority defends such aberrations, is the cause of concern. Resource to help at arrival terminal exists but they are not regulated; rules to check human trafficking have been tightened, but they are not conveyed downstream; aviation security has made new regulations but has not put them in public domain. And no one is at fault, or so it seems from the attitude of people entrusted with on-site responsibility.
These are mere examples that I encountered within one morning. These and many more must be there in every sphere of activity at the airport. Flaws no doubt they are, but highly correctable, I believe.
If even small and isolated attempts are made to correct them, then the visiting population, be they indigenous or foreign, will all say…Incredible India!!!
(Author is an Indian Air Force (IAF) Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.)