Disclaimer – The views in this short story are purely my own. I do not intend to offend anyone. Any resemblance to any person or thing is based on fact and isn’t intended to cause harm or disrepute. Most of the following recollections are accurate, but I have spiced things up purely for the sake of humour. I do hope people can change in the years to come and be more considerate towards one another.
Taking a flight has become an all too familiar practice in my life. Right from the early 90’s, I remember airports and all the formalities it entailed. Right from the security laden entry points (much, MUCH less back then, but still tight), baggage screening, the x-ray machines and their colour coded deciphering, the crisply dressed ground and airline staff with different uniforms for each airline, the all important boarding pass, the long tunneling air bridges, and of course, the flight itself. There is a certain air of nostalgia and warm affection with which I remember flying in the 90’s though. The sheer excitement of flying never diminished even though it was relatively often that we flew, whether it was a vacation, or flying to visit family. Train journeys have their own special place in my mind (I can’t remember the last time I took a train though), with so many vivid and sometimes jarring recollections of special sights, sounds, and smells (you know what I’m talking about haha), surrounding train travel in India. But trains were vastly different and exciting in their own right when compared to air travel.
Flying was something really special in the 90’s. The then exclusivity about this mode of travel, along with the fact that my old man was a bureaucrat in the customs and central excise due to which we always had special attention in the airport, added to its allure for me, and of course getting smiled at by all the pleasant air staff, getting handed those awesome sweets and the all amazing wet freshener which would last for days. I remember opening the ones I’d saved in school and wiping my face after a sweaty recess to smell like perfume with a tingly cold clean face. As time moved on through the late 90’s and through the early part of the new millennium, air travel became less and less exciting, mostly because I grew older, but also due to the fact that airports are horribly managed places with irritating hordes of people who can’t care less about fellow passengers or care to possess any sort of civic sense or etiquette. Traveling by air today for me is one big rigmarole. I detest it. I don’t think about it longer than when I’m actually in the airport and never do I have any pleasant memories of flights or airports anymore. The vast seas of jamming squashing inconsiderate passengers all looking to outdo one another, the droning on of incoherent PA babble, delayed flights, rubbing shoulders with the person on the seat next to you with the all too familiar common armrest fights makes flying today nothing short of a nightmare. Rules and regulations are at an all time high, where a mere bottle of water is enough to get singled out in the security check where an overworked and irate CRPF soldier will ask you to toss the said bottle into the trash or down it all to be able to take the empty bottle through. Ground staff are like track and field officials where they monitor your entry into the airport down to the very last minute, and it’s a common sight these days to see passengers shouting and arguing with the staff because they were a minute beyond “45 minutes prior to departure”. I’ll try and narrate a recent flight that my wife and I took from Hyderabad to Mumbai which encapsulates all the usual irritating aspects of modern day air travel.
The day that I’m flying always has an impending feeling of doom so that I make the boarding deadlines. The rule of thumb has always been thus: An hour to the airport, and at least an hour till boarding from your arrival there. So if your flight departs at 1900 hrs, you leave home by 1700 hrs, reach the airport by 18 hrs with 15 minutes to spare for the all important “CHECK IN CLOSES 45 MINUTES PRIOR TO DEPARTURE”. Keeping this in mind, I always make it a point to leave half an hour before the stipulated 1700 hrs so that I have plenty to time to account for possible contingencies or potential delays along the way. Such contingencies may include but are not limited to; Long queues, holiday season, accidents, cattle crossing, human crossing, politician/VIP protocol bandobast, riots, protests, all India bandhs, Uber/OLA surges, unavailability of cabs, tire puncture, “bas thoda diesel bharna hai”, and lastly, “saab aap doosra taxi kar lo, ghar pe emergency hai”. The last example isn’t fiction, this has actually happened to us in Bangalore when we were on our way to the airport. The poor chap had a call from home saying that his brother had died in a bike accident and he had to rush to his village.
My wife and I visit her family over the weekend in Mumbai at least once a month, which means I take my own car and park it at the airport. The 2 nights and three days parking fee comes to about 700 rupees which is cheaper than taking a taxi two ways and is a lot more fun since I love driving my cars. The airport parking is huge and usually has plenty of space to find a decent spot, plus these weekend trips usually mean we have only carry on baggage and don’t have to lug suitcases all the way to the airport entry from the parking. The usual sights met our eyes on the way to the airport entry escalators. Families picnicking on the lawns, taxi guys trying to usher clients their way, airport buses picking and dropping their quarry, cars driving in, and cars driving out. As we neared the first entry queue, I braced myself for the usual Joe who tries to skip the queue (it’s reduced a lot overall which is great) by saying “excuse me”, which I think is downright ridiculous. This time man in his forties possibly middle aged, tried squeezing in between two lines and got ahead of us. I looked at my wife and muttered “what a dumbass” to which as usual she replied “you’re very loud” with her stern wide eyed warning look. “Good. I want him to hear” I replied as usual. The man’s wife, from behind us, who didn’t skip the queue, pulled him back and said “I know we’re late but we can’t skip the queue!” This act of good civic sense overwhelmed my usual defence systems so I let my guard down, turned around and said,
“Are you late for your flight?”
“Yes” replied the white haired man with thick black rimmed glasses, with widened eyes.
“Alright, go ahead of us. Although I doubt skipping just the two of us will give you any great advantage” I said.
“Thank you so much!” said his wife, who was wearing a salwar kurta, had short boyish hair, also glasses, and an exasperated smile.
They managed to get through in the next minute or so and rushed out of sight towards the check-in counters. As we found the way to the multi-fold, multi barrier, snake like queue winding all the way to the check-in counters, an argument was unfolding at the entry. The same couple were stopped by one of Indigo’s ground staff and from what I could overhear, they had missed the check-in time window. The wife was yelling at the seemingly disinterested ground staff woman and saying they had been in the queue all along for “so long” trying to get into the bloody airport, which is why they got late in the first place. An interesting excuse, I thought to myself, but would it be enough to get past the Indigo ground staff? The ground staff woman stared into the distance slowly nodding her head from side to side, indicating feebly that there was nothing she could do for them and that their flight was a no go for them. The man stood meekly behind his wife, nodding feverishly as the wife bellowed on, things about you can’t do this, and what are we supposed to do. The indigo woman just kept staring into the distance just nodding from side to side. Horrible. “Just horrible” I said as we slowly shuffled along our long queue to the distant check-in counters. The usual arguments also took place at the various check-in counters. Fliers trying to haggle their overweight luggage without paying the surplus, the drone like questions about power banks and explosives, fliers talking about aisle seat availability, etc.
After we were assigned our seats and we got our boarding passes, we walked towards the security check queues. Men and women had separate queues, wherein the men got scanned on tiny wooden pedestals in the open with their arms raised like they were trying to fly, while women disappeared momentarily behind veiled cubicles where I imagined they went through the same thing but with female security guards. Wallets, electronic items, and small shiny objects in general were tossed into plastic trays and the men all distributed themselves into different parallel queues depending on which looked the least crowded. Conveyor belts carried endless streams of back to back luggage of various sizes, colours, makes and models, which sluggishly pushed their way through the baggage screening machines as men of similar descriptions hoisted themselves onto the wooden pedestals and raised their arms away from their bodies so that the overworked CRPF men could try and detect concealed things. Once every now and then the screen monitoring personnel would notice something in one of the scores of baggage and point and it and say “isko nikalo” (remove this one), and ask the owner of the said suitcase about a perfume bottle, or a pair of binoculars (in my case once), or a little more exciting, a Swiss army knife. This went on without much ado, and thereafter we entered the shopping and eating areas after which the boarding gates presented themselves.
As we shuffled past all the branded stores and eateries with overpriced clothes, food, accessories, and water, I noticed a young man arguing and pleading with a suited booted airline ground staff member. Apparently the young man was in the bathroom for so long that he ended up missing his flight. He seemed aghast and rightly so I would imagine. I couldn’t imagine going into the restroom for a bit of grooming and a leak only to find out that my empty bladder and marginally better looks had cost me my flight. What I tried to figure out though, was that the ground staff member kept putting the man down by repeating himself and saying “it’s gone. Your flight has already left”, while the desperate customer kept trying to reason with him as if the flight would mysteriously turn around and land just to pick him up if he argued well enough. Even after we did an entire chakkar of the stores, bought ourselves coffee, and walked back to kill some more time, the two were still at it. The young man was adamant that his loo break wasn’t that long, while mister suited booted kept trying to explain to the man that his flight had left.
“Ah human beings” I said smugly as I looked at my watch to note that we were comfortably before our boarding gates opening time. My wife and I found ourselves two empty seats in viewing distance of our boarding gate next to a very loud obviously north Indian man (his Hindi accent was a dead giveaway) who was talking on his phone to who may have been some kind of lover, partner, or significant other as his voice automatically fell a few decibels the moment I slid into the seat next to him but his hushed cooing and sweet talking was as obvious as it was before. I casually eavesdropped to pass the time, (what could I do? Selectively turn my hearing off to someone who was literally brushing shoulders with me?) and learnt that he had visited some neighboring towns in Andhra for some meetings and that he was happy to head back home after his trip to Mumbai (the same flight we were on).
Boarding time said 1920 hrs on the boarding pass, but the clock now read 1930. This ten minutes delay threw some people off track and seemed to rattle some nerves as several passengers now started leaving their seats and approaching the exceedingly well groomed Indigo ground staff lady who sat behind the boarding gate counter. I couldn’t make out what they were asking her but I’m sure it was something to do with the inordinate delay of a whole ten minutes. The ground staff lady, trained smile pasted on her face, kept fending off the customers one by one with a courteous reply, probably some template based response. More and more people started getting up to see what was going on as the minutes ticked on by, but the boarding gates didn’t open. Finally twenty minutes later, the all familiar chimes rang out across the area and our boarding gates were finally stirring to life. The ground staff lady was accompanied by a short small made ground staff man who like his counterpart, was also exceedingly well groomed. Then the usual boarding fiasco began.
“Passengers seated in rows 21 to 24 only please may board! Only passengers in rows 21 to 24 may come forward please!” shouted the ground staff man from behind his post at the boarding gate. I noticed our boarding passes said 22E and 22B (we both had middle seats) but what had already unfolded before us was utter chaos. Almost a hundred passengers had crowded around the boarding gates and weren’t moving nor letting anyone come through with the announced seat numbers. The dozen odd passengers who were closest to the ground staff man tried showing him their boarding passes, which clearly weren’t seats in rows 21 to 24 because the ground staff man kept shaking his head vigorously and telling them it was only 21 to 24 that he wanted to board first. This sheer stupidity didn’t cease. More and more passengers kept trying to squeeze through the solid blockade of at least a hundred passengers who clearly weren’t in seats 21 to 24, all standing there like dumb spectators. What was even more dumb was that the few passengers who managed to squeeze through the unyielding crowd were denied entry by the ground staff man because, guess what, THEY WEREN’T IN SEATS 21 to 24!!! A few passengers who actually had boarding passes with seats 21 to 24 were feebly waving their boarding passes above the heads of the scores of people blocking their way, in a futile attempt to get to the gate. The ground staff man noticed them waving their boarding passes but obviously couldn’t do anything to dissolve the crowd in front of him.
“No sir, only 21 to 24 sir, this is 8A sir, no madam, yours is 16E madam, only 21 to 24 please!” the short ground staff man tried desperately as one dolt after the other tried their luck, like they were trying their hand at some sort of lucky draw, where with some luck they’d have some magical winning number. We didn’t even bother trying to make it to the boarding gate through the masses blocking the way and decided to sit back as we always do for all our flights, till all the jostling passengers pushed and rushed to get into the plane first. The same plane that won’t take off any sooner if they got on quicker than the other passenger. The same plane that wouldn’t suddenly reward you with a cool drink and a medal for having made it faster than the other passengers. The same plane that doesn’t have first come first serve for extra leg room seats. The same plane that doesn’t tell you “oh sorry sir, you didn’t run fast enough, someone else has taken seat 17F. You’ll have to try better next time.”
Another thing I didn’t understand with the boarding procedure was that no logical seating order was being followed when this sequence was being announced. For example, since this was a front-entry-only boarding, why were seats 21 to 24 being announced and not the last few seats? Like say rows 27 to 30? I tried asking my wife what she thought this could be, but she just kept nodding and agreeing with whatever I said and shrugging from time to time to show she didn’t know either (she knows how not to take part in my incessant banter with simple low effort body movements like shrugs and nods).
When all their silly sequential boarding efforts had failed and the same hundred pairs of dumb staring eyes kept looking back at them, whatever numbers they chose to yell out over their heads, they simply yelled “OKAY! ALL REMAINING SEAT NUMBERS PASSENGERS MAY NOW COME FORWARD!!!”
At this, all the hundred or so passengers slowly formed a long winding queue that went quite a distance away. When around 20 passengers remained, we slowly got up and joined the queue along with some other like minded individuals, who I beamed at for being clever and logical. Like me.
“Now these people here,” I said flicking my head towards the last golden few, “these guys here must also be the guys who stay seated after the aircraft has stopped moving and get off the plane last. Right my love? Right?” I asked my wife enthusiastically.
“Maybe, I dunno” she said, nodding and then shrugging.
I ended up sitting next to a slightly portly gentleman who gave me a good long look before minding his own god damn business. He’d coolly taken up the entire armrest and I decided I was going to fight for my rights and try taking some of it back for myself. My wife had already dozed off in her middle seat on the other side of the aisle (this was the first flight we were taking together where we didn’t manage to get adjacent seats). I gently pushed and nudged his arm away but quickly realized it wasn’t worth the fight as his arm was clammy, sweaty, and hairy. Ugh. I placed my arm against my side and rested my palm on my knees. I decided I didn’t need the damn arm rest. This decision however, was short lived as the fat man leaned forward to grab the in-flight magazine, thereby leaving the armrest exposed. “You fool! I exclaimed in my mind with triumph. “It’s mine now!” And I swiftly took over the arm rest. Then, to my horror, he coolly leaned back from his magazine fetching operation and placed his arm right over my arm like there was nothing there! Instinctively I jerked my arm away from his cold clammy hairy arm and looked at him with a look of disgusted surprise. He let out an old-man sigh through his mouth like nothing happened and opened his magazine to read through his reading glasses. As he did so, a gentle waft of his breath hit me like some kind of flank attack of death. It reeked like an anchovy’s anus. I gagged a little inside and wondered why out of all the seats, I had to get a seat next to this smelly arm rest hogging uncle. He traced a cross over his torso and mumbled a prayer under his breath (thank the heavens) as the plane gained momentum on the runway for take-off. “It’s me who should be praying for God’s mercy from your breath of painful doom old man” I thought miserably as the flight found it’s way into the clouds.
I pondered the possibility of drafting and filing a public interest litigation petition in the Supreme Court to have issued guidelines to the Airports Authority or whatever proper civic or enforcement agency for better management of crowds at airports. The guidelines from the Court could also include printing large hoarding with tips and guidelines to passengers about the importance of queuing, de-boarding in a civil and efficient fashion, etc. The manner in which people behave at airports has made air travel nothing short of hectic and chaotic with zero sense of efficiency. There’s no civic sense in the way airlines organize their queues while boarding or de-boarding. The guidelines could include appointing a separate enforcement team that would police passengers on reading their seat numbers properly, not crowding around boarding gates unnecessarily, learning how to queue properly, and waiting patiently while the plane performs its de-boarding procedures to exit the aircraft in a smooth, calm, and efficient manner. The majority of people from time immemorial jump up the second the flight comes to a half after landing and squeeze themselves into every gap they can find and end up standing like that for a good 5 to 10 minutes with nowhere to turn or move or sit when the doors aren’t even opened. What are they all doing there, packed like sardines and unable to move. Why are they in such a hurry to get down? Will your baggage disappear? Will the ferry bus leave without you? Will you be fined for being on the aircraft too late after landing? Will you be sent back on the same flight from where you came if you stayed back a few minutes? The very few people who remain seated to calmly and patiently leave the aircraft after all these people reach the baggage collection belt the same time as the ones who cram and push and insist on reaching the exit first. This is one of the hundreds of reasons why I get tired of human beings in general. Just a healthy sense of despise though. Nothing debilitating. I like being grouchy and judgmental towards such things. Thanks for reading.