Last weekend, I was stuck in an inexplicable traffic jam at 5.30 am barely a few kilometres away from the Chennai Airport. There were close to a hundred vehicles piled up. Most of the passengers were presumably on early morning flights. Everyone was obviously helpless and tense over the prospect of missing their flights. For a good half hour, the traffic was crawling, inch by inch. Not a single cop was in sight to regulate or divert the flow of vehicles to the opposite side. All I could spot was a Metro Rail barricade blocking the road at one point for no fathomable reason and a solitary private security guard trying to do his bit to ease the snarl. Under normal circumstances, I would have reached the airport at 5.30 am for the 6.50 am flight with my web boarding pass in hand. It was already 6:05 am. Thanks to Murphy’s Law, this time I had baggage to check in.
Such delays can stare at anyone. And it evidently did to even the pilot of my flight who scampered in on the dot. Why is our crisis management so pathetic? How can airport authorities be so cut off from ground realities a stone’s throw away? If more than a hundred passengers on the most common route are stuck in traffic near the airport, does it need sixth sense or some out of this world method to relay the information to the concerned staff at the airport to get their act together? Traffic signals may be switched on only at a certain time but how can such an important stretch be devoid of a single traffic constable, especially with the Metro Rail related work on in full swing? 5.30 to 6.30 am is a rush hour for airport arrivals. You can have a sizeable chunk of the force out on the roads for ‘VIP bandobust’ duty but no deployment for the common man travelling to the airport during a peak hour? Adverse weather conditions fall under the ‘Force Majeure’ disclaimer and a convenient defence for airlines when flights are delayed or cancelled. Isn’t a traffic jam near the airport also a situation that passengers have no control over?
How did events unfold at the airport as I made a dash in a franctic bid to catch my flight and my breath? The CISF personnel kept staring at my web boarding pass for what seemed like 30 seconds, in which time, I would have reached the check in counter. Mercifully, an alert and helpful airline executive expedited my check-in formalities. If VIPs can have separate lounges and mineral water diverted to bathrooms for their use and sometimes even hold up flights, if airline staff can jump queues, why can’t the common passenger (who buys his own tickets as opposed to the State exchequer paying for elected representatives) have a ‘priority’ security check line to deal with such emergencies? The half a dozen fee heads, from convenience to common user terminal equipment, on every ticket can certainly take care of such situations faced by passengers. Why can’t airlines have a separate toll free helpline to exclusively handle emergency requests from passengers? The existing helplines with their IVRS menu need help as it takes more than three minutes to get to speak to an executive.
As my name, along with many others who were also caught in that jam, was being announced, more as the airline’s ‘due diligence’ and legal defence, I just about managed to hop on to my flight on time. I didn’t feel like reading the newspapers. Such issues seldom find space amidst all those jacket full page ads. Traffic diversions may be routinely hammered out but not stories of passengers missing flights due to poor crisis management by the authorities.
If you miss your flight, pray that it’s not a non-refundable ticket. Because ‘Force Majeure’ is a curtain that only airlines can hide behind. Do also pray that you don’t have to reschedule your travel, like I had to, on my return due to a nasty fall in a bathroom,designed like a death trap, in a ‘star’ hotel. Although the airline had empty seats on an earlier flight, it sought to exploit the pain and helplessness of a wounded passenger by demanding more than double the cost of the original ticket. I dug my heels in and waited for three hours to board my original flight. The airline went with empty seats but refused to show an iota of humanity to an injured passenger it ironically labels as a ‘privileged member’. Aside of all the court judgments and legalese, two pieces from literature flashed across my mind – Shylock in the Merchant of Venice and ‘Dog in the Manger‘. Thankfully, nothing fell from the ceiling.
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer, Columnist, Author, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)