I’ve traveled from New Delhi to the US several times, over the last six years. I’ve flown a number of airlines, and I don’t think I can say bad things about any of them. Most airlines work efficiently, fly more or less on time, serve food that ranges from ordinary to good, have in-flight entertainment that also varies from ordinary to good, give economy-class passengers barely enough leg-room, and business-class ones way too much, and are generally nothing much to write home about. Some of them, like Emirates, are better than others, and deserve to be repeated. Some of them just get you there on time, which is pretty good too. This time however, the experience was something to write home about. I flew Air China.
Now, in all my travels to the US, I’d always flown over the Atlantic ocean, over the middle-east, then Europe, and then over the US, depending on which side of the humongously-large country I was traveling to. Air China flies from New Delhi to Beijing or Taipei, and then over the Pacific Ocean, to hit the west-coast of the US. So this was different in some way from all the other flights I’d taken so far. I was excited to see Beijing airport, in which I had a pretty long layover of about six hours. The flight itself had a scheduled departure time from Delhi of 3:15 am, which meant that I was expecting to sleep through the flight to Beijing, and then sleep some more at the airport, and then have a nice flight, reading, watching movies, eating, and chatting with my colleagues from Beijing to San Francisco, which was our destination.
The first thing that struck me was that Air China’s gate in T3 in the Delhi airport was at one end of the terminal. That meant a pretty long walk once we got through immigration and security. It did afford me a quiet corner, where I could spend some time talking over the phone with my wife, who I wasn’t going to see for the next two weeks. The time we got turned out to be about an hour more than we’d expected, since the flight was delayed by 30 minutes, and finally flew about 45-50 minutes past the scheduled time. The fact that I spent all the time talking with my wife was the silver lining to the cloud that was beginning to form over the experience of this journey, and was in some ways a precursor of things to come.
So 45 minutes past the scheduled departure time, me and my colleagues were making our way to our seats on the airplane, when my colleague, Pankaj, noticed that there was no in-flight entertainment system on our seats. We managed to suppress our shrieks, and like true Indians, attributed the situation to destiny, saying that it wanted us to catch up, which we hadn’t done in a long time, and what better time to do that than when we’re sitting together for five hours with nothing else to do? And we hoped there’d be free alcohol, which would compensate for any form of entertainment whatsoever.
We’d been settled in our seats for a few minutes, as had everybody else on the plane, when we felt a jerk, and the plane started to taxi. Pankaj and I looked at each other. No announcements? No security demonstration that every traveler knows by-heart anyway? No introductions about who the captain is and the names of our hosts and hostesses? Not that we were expecting to remember and greet them if we ran into them on the streets of Beijing or Delhi, but something I’d come to expect as a standard part of air travel was missing. Well, I shrugged, it’s probably a sign of Chinese respect and efficiency. They realize most of us have traveled before, and know the rigmarole, so don’t want to waste our time, and their energies. The fact that we didn’t understand any announcements that did happen throughout the flight, regardless of which language they were in, is another matter, though I’m pretty sure that some of them were in English, and some in Chinese. There was free alcohol too, so maybe some of them were clear, and our heads weren’t.
Landing at Beijing and after going through the really slow security check for in-transit passengers where they were taking our pictures and scanning our passports, we learnt that our flight to San Francisco was delayed by two hours. Well, OK. We’d get some more time to sleep, so no worries. We hunted for a good place to eat, had some lunch, and headed towards our gate to find some nice seats to lie down on. The airport wasn’t very crowded, so we easily got that, and had a nice little nap. When I got up a couple hours later, I realized that I couldn’t hear any announcements. Panicking that our flight might have taken off and we never heard about it and might have to end up staying in China instead of the US for the next two weeks, we rushed to our designated gate, only to find that the gate had changed! OK, run some more!
The flight hadn’t taken off, but the lack of announcements was unexpected. Eventually, our flight got delayed by another 30 minutes, and the first announcement we heard about it was the one that said “This is the last and final call for…”. The Chinese sure have a sense of efficiency.
Now, the one thing we discussed several times while waiting at the airport was in-flight entertainment, and the lack of it. We appreciated destiny setting us up so that we could talk and connect again after so long, and even enjoyed it. But the catching up was done. In the next flight destiny, we needed to be entertained. And I was confident Air China would have something on this 11-hour flight. Can you guess? We were wrong. From Beijing to San Francisco, the only in-flight entertainment that we got was an English movie that was playing on a large, fuzzy, colorless screen 15 feet away from us, and which they stopped suddenly, after playing 3/4ths of it. Our sense of acceptance of life as destined was beginning to give way, and the wall crumbled completely when the hostess arrived with the meals. “Pork or Seafood?”, she politely asked. What? No vegetarian option? Like, none whatsoever? “No”, she shook her head firmly. Indians can get exasperated too you know, and we’d reached that point.
Anyway, five or six breads made up for all the meals, and free alcohol made up for the entertainment, again. The planes were old, the flights were late, the crew didn’t demonstrate safety procedures nor introduce themselves, and the food options were rather limited. This was like flying in the old days! It was pure, unadulterated, time travel. We did reach our destination safely, which is what air travel is ultimately about. A little timeliness, and all’s well Air China, though it won’t hurt to learn some of the tricks of the other guys. At least it was a trip I needed to write about. See you in two weeks, India.