On a normal day, it would have taken Shweta Chhabria Kriplani a little over five- and-a-half-hours to reach Changi airport in Singapore from Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport. The Singapore-based banker, however, spent most of Saturday at the Mumbai airport, sleeping, sitting, walking and cursing her bad luck, till her Air India flight, scheduled for a 12.15 am departure, finally took off at 2.15 pm. The 14 hours that she spent at the airport, in her own words, was "a hellish experience."
For her and nearly 100 of her co-passengers on Air India's Mumbai-Singapore flight AI 342, it was indeed an experience best forgotten. SUNDAY MiD DAY spoke to many of the angry passengers who called up the MiD DAY office in the morning. All of them said they wouldn't fly the national carrier again if they could help it.
Most passengers reached the airport terminal around 9.30 pm on Friday for the 12.15 am flight. They had finished with check-in, immigration formalities, security check and even received their boarding passes, when, with less than an hour to go for departure, they were informed that the flight would be delayed.
"Initially they kept telling us it would be ready for take-off any minute. Finally around 3 am we lost our cool and approached Air India officials present at the airport. They didn't have a proper explanation. No one would give us an honest answer," said Chhabria-Kriplani, who works in a bank in Singapore and was on her way back.
It was only after a few hours that the passengers were told the real reason for the delay: the pilot and co-pilot listed for the flight had failed to turn up! "The AI staff lied to us through the night. First they promised they would accommodate us in the next flight that was to leave early in the morning. But that didn't happen. Finally we were told the flight had been rescheduled for a 2.15 pm departure," she said.
While honesty and transparency has never been a virtue that Air India can boast of, at least the Maharaja has been known for being great hosts. But shockingly, passengers said they were given just some snacks and water and that too only after they raised a ruckus and demanded food.
Digisha Jain, another passenger on the ill-fated flight, who was travelling with her father to Singapore to seek admission for an MBA degree at a B-school there, was furious. The delay, she said would mean she would miss her scheduled interview at the B School. "Getting another appointment is very difficult in universities there," she said.
Similarly another passenger, Bhavna Balkrishnan, was going to attend a marriage in Singapore and the bride's wedding dress, was with her. She said she was hoping to be in time to hand over the dress. Passengers alleged that the worst affected were the children and the elderly who had no place to lie down for over 12 hours.
At no point did the Air India officials provide any official information to them, alleged passengers. "There was no proper communication from the officials and hence, we didn't know what was happening. We were dependent totally on what the staff at the gate were telling us," said another passenger.
When contacted, Air India officials acknowledged that unavailability of the crew led to the inordinate delay, but claimed that passengers were taken care of. An AI official claimed, "Falf the passengers were accommodated in another flight that left for Singapore on Saturday morning." A spokesperson from Air India told this correspondent, "The flight couldn't take off at 12.15 am because of unavailability of crew.
However, passengers were given proper food and water and were taken care of. The flight was rescheduled at 2.15 pm and half the passengers were accommodated in an earlier flight." The flight finally reached Singapore at 10.40 pm local time, (8.10 pm India time), a full 15 hours behind schedule.