From Air India 183 (30th May) to AI 1183 (31st May): A Fly on the Wall Account of 30 Hours of Chaos

From Air India 183 (30th May) to AI 1183 (31st May): A Fly on the Wall Account of 30 Hours of Chaos

June 1, 2024 0

Never in my 25 years of flying have I seen such mayhem. Will it fly, will it not? Now it’s boarding, now it’s not. There was shouting, screaming, panicky outbursts, troubling arguments between passengers and crew, almost physical punches being thrown (thank God it didn’t come to that).

Exactly 17 years since my first trip to the US, I arrived at the airport all excited. Most people were unlucky enough to be stuck in this disaster for nearly 24 hours before I joined them. Me? I was just plain and simply stupid to join them. Safe to say, I was an outsider—I didn’t have the 24-hour history of panic. And to top it all, I’ve developed this amazing ability to look at everything around me from my professional perspective as someone running a mental wellness platform.

I identified five kinds of people on this flight:

Submissive ones: Willing to just sit out the entire ordeal until the bitter end.
Troubled passengers: Couldn’t endure the ordeal any longer and wanted out, but had no clue what to do.
Scared ones: Paranoid about the situation, convinced something was wrong with the plane. For them, it wasn’t just the ordeal; they were terrified of flying in this “defective” plane for fear of crashing.
Plain and simple loud ones: The troublemakers. They think they’re in control but just end up causing more chaos.
The supportive ones: Stood by the airline and urged everyone to keep calm and let the situation resolve itself.
It was a classic case of collective action gone bad. If any customer refused to fly, their luggage needed to be taken out, a task that would take about 2 hours. Security check of the plane, deboarding, removing specific luggage, paperwork, and getting clearance for takeoff—all this in 2 hours. During this time, another couple would lose patience or faith, and the ordeal would continue forever.

The problem was that the plane was loaded multiple times with claims it would fly. On the first day, passengers were kept on the plane for hours without a working air conditioner. A couple of passengers even collapsed. The second time on the second day, when they took it on the tarmac and brought it back, people knew it was a repeat of the previous day and that they were being made fools of. The staff tried their best to maintain composure among the passengers and, most importantly, themselves. The fact was, they were just as clueless as the passengers.
In all this ordeal, I had the following revelations:

A thought about the plight of the poor staff and crew. They had to maintain calm, be in control, take literal abuse from the passengers, serve them during this wait, and all this while their job of serving on a 15-hour flight hadn’t even begun. According to guidelines and timings, they could have chosen to be relieved and asked for a new crew to take over since they were on the job for certain hours, and there was a 15-hour flight ahead. They volunteered to stay on to ensure the plane didn’t get delayed further. Kudos to them.

The airline [Air India] is a total disaster. Not because they had a plane go bad, not because it was delayed by 30 hours, not because the AC didn’t work, or they didn’t let the passengers deboard—not for any of this. The airline is a disaster because they are deceitful. They give false reasons and are only trying to manage trouble. Even their crew and staff don’t know what the hell is going on. This, in my view, is part of the overall culture at Air India, which needs a major revamp. I thought the Tatas would change and fix things, but this experience tells me that hasn’t happened yet. Whether it’s a case of old habits dying hard or the new management doing little to change this is anybody’s guess.

While the crew and the staff tried to do everything, the captain was mostly incommunicado. Didn’t even bother coming out of the cockpit till everything had gone to hell and some passengers were convinced the plane was faulty and Air India would fly an unsafe plane that might crash. The captain ought to have been communicating directly with passengers or at least continuously through his crew on the exact reason for the changes. Apparently, this happened on both days (with different captains), so it’s probably part of the culture.
While a 15-hour direct flight sounds great, the regulations, logistical challenges, and everything else associated with it make it a difficult proposition. Between the fuel it can carry, the timings of the crew, the shifts, it works only when it works. A delay or challenge has a multiplier effect and becomes increasingly difficult to manage, a fact that was a huge part of the problem here.

Net-net, an ordeal. Mine was much simpler than the others. The flight, once it flew, was a charm. Service wasn’t as good perhaps, but then that’s what you should expect from a tired, rattled crew. They tried their best though.
Air India needs a revamp of their brand personality. Tata’s name is a start, but it needs to be in actions, which hasn’t happened at all. This needs to be at the center of everything they do, part of all the profitability questions. I heard at least 20 people claim they will never fly Air India, and some would ensure no one they know flies Air India. The premium customers will anyway choose a better option—not Singapore or Emirates, but even Turkish would do. Even Indigo or Vistara would do.

Finally, airlines need to sincerely invest in the mental health of their crew. This is where I want to come in. Anyone looking to create a program for it, please connect and let’s create a better structure.
I wrote this while on the flight, and then the flight landed. More than 70 people didn’t get their luggage. They had knowingly kept some bags to speed up the process of off-boarding people in Delhi. Smart move! The problem is that they forgot to tell us. We waited for an hour+ for our bags, and then once all the bags were offloaded, they asked 70 of us to come to a counter and fill out some forms for baggage. BTW, the forms were already prefilled with our names, baggage tags, etc. AND WE STILL WAITED AT THE BAGGAGE COUNTER FOR MORE THAN ONE HOUR!!

Air India, you have lost the plot. Either you are stupid, arrogant, or “specially abled.” If you were a person, I would have fought a neuro inclusivity case for you. But you don’t get my sympathy, empathy, or any support. You currently don’t and would never be able to compete in the global environment at this rate.

BTW, this story will need completion once my bags arrive—if they arrive. For now, me and my handbag are settled nicely in San Francisco.