The Fog Challenge - A Winter Traveller's Experience Out Of Delhi

An early start on New Year's Day as we make our way to the Delhi airport to catch our flight to Chennai. Thoughts of Puducherry, our holiday destination help dispel the chill in the Delhi air as we navigate our way to the airport. Past 6:30 am, Delhi's dreaded winter fog, the slayer of all travel schedules, begins its descent, enveloping familiar landmarks in a blinding blanket of fog. Fog lamps and hazard lights blink through the thick haze as we crawl perilously towards the airport - like a heart-stopping shot in the dark, relying on faith and an inner compass. We make it to the airport intact having survived level one of the annual fog challenges.

At 7 am, the queues for check-in are long but patience is not in short supply, at least not yet. It's New Year's Day after all and there's a whiff of optimism in the air. Many passengers are bleary eyed, a result of having first stayed up to ring in the new year and then getting out of bed early on a cold winter's day to catch a flight.

We head to the coffee counter for our caffeine fix before the call for boarding. Our flight is due to leave at 8:25 am. We'll soon learn that the seat that comes with the coffee is a prized perk and that the fog challenge just got tougher.
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Hundreds of passengers were stuck at the Delhi airport after flight services were disrupted

When there's no boarding call by 7:40 am, a fellow traveller goes for a recee to the boarding gate area. He calls back to warn the rest of the group that seating is scarce and there's no clear indication on when boarding will start. We're better off waiting where we are.

With a half-asleep child who's recently weathered Delhi's winter of viral fevers, we dig in our heels at the coffee counter grateful to have a seat. The buzz is that no flights have taken off or landed since 6 am and given the absence of announcements travellers frantically search for information online.

A relentless stream of passengers is pouring into the departure area. They look up at the display boards, little information comes their way. The departure hall seats are full, so the army of passengers expectantly trains its sight on the food counters.

Towards us they march - a sea of winter warriors geared up in boots and coats - a slow moving battalion in hoodies, mufflers, shawls and monkey caps. Mothers pushing strollers with restless babies, senior citizens tentatively negotiating their way through passengers squatting on the floor. In no time at all the seating at the food outlets is full, with passengers buying hot beverages to revive flagging spirits and more pertinently to earn a seat at the table.
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The waiting hall and the area near the boarding gates were packed with people sitting on the floor

I lean across to view the boarding area below. A sea of heads without a toehold is what it looks like from above. Passengers sitting on a staircase leading down, passengers apprehensive of stepping off the escalator and getting lost in the seamless mass below.

I walk across to the display board which like the fog outside is shrouded in opacity - it simply reads "Delayed".  Passengers stare vacantly at the board, hoping for some sign from the board above. "When will my flight take off," asks a woman tired of the endless wait. The young man behind the counter asks her to go and enquire from the airline counter in the boarding area below. "But there's no room to move below," protests the woman. The staffer, equally harried has no information to proffer.

Almost three hours since our scheduled time of boarding, there's movement near the gates below. Evidently, boarding has begun.

We make a mad dash to the boarding gate below and take a breath once we are on the airline coach.

On the tarmac, a prize sight for sore eyes - the New Year sun breaking through the fog on a winter's day. The vision of a flight taking off in the distance brings hope and optimism. We hear there's a long queue for take-off but it's okay. It's the New Year and we're ready for the ride.

(Gauri Datta Gupta is Executive Editor, Assignment with NDTV 24x7)

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