Every time a wheel ran off its axis during landing, or a windshield cracked mid air, or a malfunctioning AC boiled up the cabin temperature to headline grabbing news, “Passengers have a narrow escape aboard Air India’s Dreamliner”, I turned a deaf ear. Every time a Dreamliner flight got delayed or cancelled, mostly because of technical snags, I chose to ignore it. At social occasions, when people expressed their disappointment over Air India’s much-touted Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I defended the national airline, dismissing these as teething troubles. Dreamliner, I would say, parroting the words from Air India management, would change the fortune of the carrier. After all, as the Editor of Air India’s in-flight magazine Shubh Yatra, it was my duty to defend the airline. Besides, I sincerely believed that with the jazz-loving MD (Rohit Nandan), whom I know personally to be a very dynamic man, at the helm, the possibilities for a turnaround were immense. There was already a lot of excitement over the large body aircraft, which is also fuel efficient. The fact that they have decided to change the long-standing publisher of their in-flight magazine itself spoke volumes about the Airline’s new initiatives for change. And the new magazine with new layout, content and design was out to reflect this flight to newer horizons.
My own Dreamliner moment, however, took a long time to come. Strangely, Air India never offered to fly me on it to do an experiential story. During the inaugural Delhi-London Dreamliner flight, hordes of journalists were invited to take part in a media fam, but not the editorial team of Shubh Yatra. As a magazine that represents the airline, we could have promoted the Dreamliner well. Subsequently, the Airline introduced flights to Rome and Milan, Moscow, Birmingham and even Tokyo, but the management never asked us to cover these first flights. So when the entire world was flying Dreamliner, the managing editor of its own magazine was left out. “Ghar ki moorgi,” that must have been their attitude.
My Dreamliner moment came finally. However, it had nothing to do with Air India and everything to do with Visit England, the official tourism body of UK, who invited me to Birmingham, the latest Dreamliner destination with direct connectivity from Delhi. I was naturally very excited.
I boarded the plane on March 1, early this year, secretly hoping to catch people reading the magazine I edit. And what if some frequent flyers recognised me from my photograph that appears every issue! With such delicious thoughts, I perked myself on an economy class seat sandwiched between two UK desis.
“Are you sure you want to sit here?” a young attendant with the severity of a high school mistress, came and addressed us three. “Why, what’s wrong with this seat? my seat buddy responded, Brit accent in place. “Nothing, but your seat is on the emergency door and in case of any problem you will be the one to open the door and help others slide down the inflatable ladder. Are you ok with that?” she asked. Yes, of course, we chorused, our plane floating in the Indian Ocean too distant a thought to be disturbed by. The attendant then explained the emergency evacuation procedure, a patronising tone in her voice. Soon after, I turned to the window. I have heard a great deal about the Dreamliner windows that do not have the usual shutters. Instead, with the press of a button you can turn the window from transparent to translucent to opaque. Ready for take off now, seat belts strapped, door shut, the crew took position, as passengers switched off their phones after one last goodbye call to their dear ones. In 15 minutes the plane would leave, as we awaited our turn on the runway. The cabin became quiet with only the sounds of seat belt clicks, and the electronic dings and dongs punctuating the sanitized environment.
Another five minutes pass by, and then ten minutes more. The plane was still where it was. What was going on? We strained our ears for some announcements. But nothing. And looked for the cabin crew. No one was around. Passengers were beginning to whisper their curiosity. What was it? Some VIP passenger yet to arrive? Someone fell sick on board? We were now fidgeting on our seats, turning our head aimlessly. Ten turned to fifteen minutes and then twenty, and everyone was getting restless. What’s the problem? Just then a steward – the one with the patronising voice – passed by with a glass of water, perhaps in response to a passenger request. “What’s happening?” someone asked. “Any problem?” “Is it a busy runway?” another called out. “We will start soon,” she said, her manner evasive, adding, “If I knew I would have told you. We are equally clueless!” Then came the announcement everyone was waiting for. “We are shortly taking off. Sorry for the delay. The engineers were conducting a last minute final check,” said the captain. What did this mean? Outside the window, we spotted a dozen uniformed men wing walking.
Engineers are supposed to check the aircraft way before boarding! Half hour now stretched to 45 minutes. The behaviour of the crew members was suspicious, as they avoided the aisle. And when we did manage to corner one, all they had to say was, “we have no information from the cockpit. Will let you know as soon as we get it”! Now, people were losing it, turning the aisle into a crowded fish market lane. Loud and disgruntled voices were heard, Bhatinda abuses were tossed around in Birmingham ascents, even as I captured the unruly scene – so often seen on television news whenever there is a plane problem – on my Galaxy.
Another announcement came: “It is the Captain speaking. Regret to inform that one of the wings has suffered from an electrical fault and our engineers are fixing it. Till that time lunch will be served.” An angry murmur with the potential of blowing up into a chaotic cacophony was hushed up with the thought of food. A bit relieved, people settled back on the seats. “This is nothing new about Air India,” sighed the young Indian Brit to my left. “I will never fly Air India no more,” said the gentleman to my right.
Lunch was served (thankfully it was Indian), post which several passengers were seen dozing off. Others like me time-passed channel surfing on the in-flight entertainment system. Cabins were dimmed, and still there was no news. It was now two hours on the stranded flight, as beads of sweat started appearing on my body. The air conditioning was acting up. The rising temperature had everyone fanning themselves with, of all things, my magazine!
I sent some mobile footage to my wife. She was worried. This was not funny really. Air India was truly living upto its reputation. Angry and impatient by now, I now sent an SMS to Sanjay Singh, the aviation correspondent of Mail Today, who was doing a series Air India-in-turmoil stories at that point. Interestingly Singh was introduced to me at the AI Headquarters in Delhi by the GM Communication of Air India. “Stuck in AI Dreamliner for two hrs on way to Birmingham. No take off. People getting restless. Wing problem!” I keyed in the words. He responded with a ‘thanks’ and asked me to keep him updated. There was little else to do, except talking to and texting our friends and family. Meanwhile, I noticed that the Brit Indian to my left had been devotedly reading every word of Shubh Yatra and was now pausing on the Editor’s Note which had my profile photo. Would he recognise me? Should I point out the photo and tell him that’s me? But wasn’t this the wrong time? For all you know, I might just end up being the punching bag for being an AI representative.
Finally, an hour later, three hours from the time we boarded the flight, an apologetic voice came from the speakers. It was the chief pilot. “Regret to inform that the flight will not take off today. Your boarding and lodging have been arranged for the night.” A collective sigh. A loud murmur. What a waste! My UK trip was now cut short by a day. Which meant I missed out on important appointments. And what of those passengers attending a wedding, a sick relative, or conduct a do-or-die business deal! It was another half hour of waiting before doors were thrown open for exit. “Flight cancelled,” I SMSed Singh.
But our real ordeal came only after debarking. There were no Air India officials to shepherd us. Where to go? What to do next? Should we collect our luggage from the conveyer belt? Or will the luggage remain checked-in? Where will they take us? People were asking one another. In the absence of any AI personnel, we caught hold of some random guy in uniform who washed his hands off saying, “Catch the airline guys, why me?” Passengers, many from Punjab, boarding the flight in Amritsar, were now forming into groups and I followed one group trying to figure out the whereabouts of our luggage. With no clear picture, we loitered around bored, tired, uncertain, and angry, fatigued out by the restlessness, inertia and uncertainty. Everyone was on a short fuse, blowing up easily. We went to an Air India sales outlet and stormed the place. In moments like these, leaders emerge, as a few led the charge brigade, discussing various possibilities.
Next they crowded the immigration counters, shooting abuses at the bespectacled middle aged officials, who, to their credit, answered calmly. It was just another day in the life of an immigration personal. We went through the drill once again, this time for exit from Terminal 3, standing in long queues. And then someone passed on the good news: Busses are on the way.
A loud cheer made everyone in the airport turn around to look. In any case, the large group (the entire plane load) united in misery by Air India’s merciless attitude was drawing a lot of curiosity. It was time for us to wait. And we waited. And waited. Like waiting for Godot. All I could think of is a bed and rest for the night. But buses were taking their own sweet time. Some guys sat on the shiny floor, took out Coke bottles and mixed it with booze. There were no benches or chairs in the area. Several passengers spread bedcovers on the floor and turned the airport into a second class railway platform. My heart went out for the young single mothers who with wailing babies on one hand and luggage on the other looked very vulnerable.
The buses finally started arriving. Being single I ran and managed to find a front seat in the first bus. Shangri La hotel near Connaught Place would be our night haunt. At the reception, I quickly checked into my room, realising the chaos the passengers in the following buses would create. A buffet dinner was arranged for all AI passengers.
By evening the latest Air India Dreamliner mishap was all over the news channels. I was surprised to find that so many passengers actually sent mobile clips from inside the aircraft to the media houses. We slept, little knowing what we were up for next day! By 7 in the morning we were up and ready, had our breakfast, lounged about in the lobby or smoked and chatted by poolside garden, soaking in the sun. By now everyone knew everyone, smiling at each other in lifts and lobbies – we were on the same boat (er plane), brother!
Around 10 am, we spotted the white luxury coaches in the hotel foyer. Soon we were at the IGI airport. As I was expecting, hordes of newspaper reporters and TV crew were around, thrusting their cameras and microphones on passengers alighting from the bus. Passengers, of course, took Air India’s trip right, left and centre, happy to find someone to air their grievances. I quickly ran past them.
From now on it was a smooth sail, boarding the plane as per the same seat number, same passengers on my either side. And the same crew, including the one with the patronising tone. “Slept well last night?” I asked her. She rolled her eyes as if to say ‘what kind of a question is that’? But that didn’t stop her from voicing her grievances over a newspaper photo that showed her with a caption: AI crew were rude to passengers. “See this photo,” she showed the clipping on her phone. “I was actually holding an old man’s hand to help him get down, but the paper cut the old man out!” She then went on to provide the same live demonstration on how to handle the emergency door, but not before an opening line “I know it sounds silly. I told you already, but it is my duty to repeat.”
The flight was yet to taxi off to the runway when a stern aging attendant, possibly the cabin crew in-charge given the mammoth effort she undertook in concealing her wrinkles, came upto my seat and asked, “You are Nishiraj Baruah?” “Yes,” I said. “Come with me. The Captain wants to see you,” she said.
Now what had I done? What would they check? Were my papers in order?? I was beginning to wonder, a worried expression on my face. Even the guys seated next to me were surprised by the manner in which I was whisked away. I followed her down the long aisle, then on to the business class, and then on towards the loos. She stopped right in front of the cockpit door, knocked, and said, “Mr Baruah is here, captain.”
The pilot, a 50-plus Air India veteran, broke into a huge smile. “So nice to meet you, Mr Baruah! I love your magazine,” he shook my hands. Oh, what a relief, as my heartbeats calmed down. My frown lines disappeared as I greeted him back with a broader smile and a firmer handshake.
I took a seat on the congested cockpit, marvelled at the dazzling array of Dreamliner gadgetry – lights, buttons, switches, monitors, display panels, the works. It was an experience I never bargained for!
Journalistic curiosity took over and a Q & A session followed. “People think we are highly paid, but flying a commercial airliner is the 6th stressful job in the world,” he aired, adding that flying on autopilot was even more difficult as you needed to monitor the instruments continuously for any malfunction. “The air India MD would never understand our problems. He is not a pilot, you see!” he held forth. From tech we moved on to trivia. “I have had the good fortune of flying Amitabh Bachchan a number of times. Seat no. A1 in Business or First Class is reserved for him whenever he flies,” he shared.
Seeing the captain talk to me, the business class attendants stared at me with approving smiles. The pilot went on sharing his experiences, never mind that it is time for the flight to take off. He was in no hurry. But the idea of a transcontinental commercial airliner being held up just because of our casual conversation wasn’t very appealing. “Well, captain, I think should take my seat now,” I said shaking his hands with a promise to keep in touch.
I was making my way back to my seat in Economy class when the stern attendant smiled, and said, “Where are you going? This is your seat, Mr Baruah,” indicating the sprawling luxury of a Business class seat. “Really?” I exclaimed, not believing my luck, and just about managed a heartfelt “Thank you.” “It is courtesy the Captain,” she offered, and then whispering: “But don’t tell any passengers about your upgrade.”
“They found a window seat for me,” I explained in response to the puzzled look of my former seat companions when I went back to get my cabin bag. The two Indo Brits were even more puzzled now. As I settled down to my newfound luxury, I noticed that the female attendants were paying me much more attention than a Business Class passenger usually deserves. They continued refilling my glass with Champagne and wine, reloaded my plates with extra snacks and food, and rewarded me with extra large smiles and quick responses. I enjoyed the attention, but couldn’t help feeling awkward when I realised that the eyes of the few other business class passengers were on me, possibly wondering why is all this fuss over me!
Was it just because their boss, the aircraft captain, spoke to me?
The reason became clear soon enough. As we cruised somewhere up across international time zones, the prettiest of the attendants came up to me, knelt down by my seat, took out an iPad and proceeded to show me some images: Our lovely attendant in different clothes and different avatars. “I want to be a model, sir. Can you help me?” she asked. “Of course, why not,” I said, completing in my mind what remained unsaid: “…especially when it comes to a beautiful woman like you.”
Champagne and wine; a range of a la carte cuisine to choose from; business class comfort; special access to the cockpit; and the company of a stunner all through the night, all through the flight! At 35,000 feet above ground, shouldn’t I be literally on Cloud 9?
And that’s how, while erring technology turned the previous day into a nightmare, the human touch managed to rewrite it for what it actually is: A Dreamliner.
Nishiraj A. Baruah is the Executive Editor of Harper’s Bazaar India (Bride)