Living in India presents more opportunities than challenges, but traveling by air within, to, or from India reverses the opportunity-challenge dynamic. Indian’s on the ground may be hospitable, friendly, and engaging, but many Indian’s who travel by air are rude, entitled, and inconsiderate. Witnessing the Indian-flyer dynamic is both entertaining and a divine test of patience even Penelope would struggle to pass.
The Gate Area
The gate area at London Heathrow International Airport is populated predominantly by Indians. This comes as no surprise as we are on our way to Hyderabad—the jewel of southern India and recently named both The Best City on Earth, as well as the Indian city with the best quality of living, where, according to Padmaja Yalamanchi, the city offers a “cosmopolitan environment.” But there is nothing cosmopolitan about today’s flyers.
We are in Terminal 5’s remote concourse B. This is where British Airways puts aircraft departing for places BA deems substandard—for example, countries that booted them out after several hundred years of oppression—and where the gate crew may prove to be an embarrassment to the airline. The concourse is barren, missing most of the usual lounges, restaurants, and extensive duty free shopping. There is no Chanel wafting throughout the concourse, nobody asking us to sample whiskeys, no place to get sushi. There are bathrooms for which we are grateful, but by comparison, it is not a location considered worthy of investment.
Most of our fellow passengers are either comparatively old—I’m almost 50—or comparatively young with children. Virtually everyone staging to board the BA flight to The ‘Bad is overweight, by which I mean it is possible many of them ate a relative in order to sneak him onto the airplane. I do not come to this observation hastily. I am a Westerner and know what overweight looks like, and beyond portions of Florida it doesn’t look like this—this is much worse. Looking around at my fellow flight-mates and their assortment of carry-on luggage, I begin to wonder, “What is the maximum passenger plus luggage weight a Boeing 787 can carry?”
I’m not just thinking about what I can see in the terminal, but what I can’t see being loaded into the airplane’s cargo hold. Indian’s are notorious when it comes to packing for holiday. There is nothing worse than showing up in London with mom, dad, two children, grandma and grandpa, and realizing you forgot cooking spices, sweets, or the kitchen sink. Indian’s own this concept and are expert luggage packers, employing rope, plastic wrap, and tape in innovative ways to bind suitcases and boxes that have seen far better days. Seeing them approach the ticket counter to check luggage is like watching a desert caravan.
This should by no means be considered a judgement. On the contrary, we are keenly aware of what we can and cannot obtain in India and therefore pack according to India rules. Since we often fly Business Class from the US to India, we are afforded three 32 kilogram bags per person—that’s 70 pounds to the rest of us—and we fill those bags with as much natural peanut butter, mayonnaise, Mac & Cheese, popcorn, granola, and wine as we can fit in our woefully undersized luggage, often butting up against that 32kg limit.
Herein lies the dilemma: American’s don’t routinely pack like Indians, so when we fly from the US to London—our normal layover point—we are not concerned about overloading the airplane because we are likely the only passengers attempting to test the aircraft’s carrying capacity. However, we are but two of 219 passengers defying the laws of physics on the London to Hyderabad flight. It’s enough to make me want to drink some of the beer wrapped delicately in bubble wrap and sandwiched between rolls of soft, gentle toilet paper in our checked bags.
Boarding is where the real fun begins. British Airways has a system for allowing pre-boarding for those with children and people requiring wheelchairs. In the case of the latter, there is an indicator on the boarding pass identifying those in need of a wheelchair. I imagine this is to keep people from grabbing the nearest wheelchair and rolling themselves up to the gate so they can board early. But British Airways is crazy if it thinks this minor detail is going to keep Indian’s from boarding early—a 350 year occupation and they learned nothing about Indian ingenuity.
The boarding process begins with an announcement that the boarding process will begin in a few minutes. A dozen Indian’s stand and make their way to the counter via the Priority Boarding lane—because the best time to board is before the actual boarding begins. These are not dumb people. They realize they need to board before everyone else to be guaranteed a seat and space for their carry-on’s in the overhead bins. No self respecting Indian would be caught with a bag beneath the seat in front of them.
This first batch is turned away by the gate agents who repeat 12 times, “We are not boarding, yet. Please take your seats.” However, the pre-pre-board crowd doesn’t return to their seats. Instead, they congregate about the entrance that provides the shortest route to the ticket agent—the Priority Boarding lane. Realizing this initial defeat is little more than a minor set back, these folks remain steadfast—they will not be swayed by ticket takers who are already operating beyond their capacity.
Eventually we hear the announcement calling pre-boarding for people with small children and those requiring wheelchair assistance “as indicated on your boarding pass.” All but six Indians in the gate area stand and begin moving toward the gate.
The ones with children are the fastest and usually arrive first. Entire plump families make their way down the Priority Boarding lane. Mom, dad, grandma—her sari exposing parts of her body that remain burned in my memory like the sight of mangled car crash victims—grandpa, aunts, and uncles all gather about the one child in hopes of an early boarding. Parents with teenage children make their way toward the plane. People with very short relatives head toward the gate. Pretty much anyone in proximity to someone who looks even remotely like they might be under the age of 35—the legal age of emancipation in India—gets up to board the aircraft.
Trailing them by only a few paces are the equally fleshy Wheelchair-Assists. Unlike the Child-Bearers, the WCAs have to play the part. Among the fifty WCA passengers are three people in wheelchairs, eleven people who accompany them, and 36 people without wheelchairs who hope to board anyway. They walk that fine line between anxious determinant and woeful invalid, shuffling along just fast enough to keep up with the Child-Bearers, but slow enough to look like they need extra help.
As the two groups approach the gate, none of them has their ticket in-hand. To a person, they rummage about oversized purses, presenting tattered pieces of paper for inspection. About half are asked to return to their seats, “Madam, we are pre-boarding for people who need a wheelchair. Your boarding pass does not list needing a wheelchair.”
The gate agents seem oblivious to the fact that the majority of people with wheelchair listed on their boarding pass are not in fact in a wheelchair. One would think this would be an indication of abuse, but apparently they are accustomed to allowing anyone to board who was smart and selfish enough to click the wheelchair button.
The BA gate agents working the boarding gates for India-bound planes are not the best and brightest. They are overly loud—like when people in the service industry, want customers to hear them complaining but don’t want to complain directly to the customer—and they can’t seem to manage the onslaught of pre-boarding Indians. They begin queuing them at the single straining elevator, moving them down to gate level a few at a time. Several WCAs move toward the escalator, but are corralled by the gate agents who are concerned about the liability should one of these WCAs hurt themselves or damage their imaginary wheelchairs on the moving stairwell. These BA staff have no chance at Employee of the Month.
It takes about 30 minutes to finish pre-boarding. In addition to us, there are a few non-Indians, a few Indians in Business Class, and 20 Indians who did not get the wheelchair memo—don’t feel bad for them, they will be in the WCA or Child-Bearers group next time.
The next announcement calls for Club World and Business Class passengers to board the aircraft. All of the remaining Indian’s rush the gate, squeezing into the line just like they merge their cars, scooters, and cycles into Hyderabad traffic. We end up behind several Indians who do not have their boarding pass in-hand. They too shuffle about their belongings, eventually presenting the crinkled piece of paper. “No sir, we are now boarding Priority passengers. Please stand in the standard boarding lane.” This phrase is repeated 20 times.
The boarding process is complete with the last 20 Indian passengers too stupid or honorable to lie about needing wheelchair assistance. By now we are 20 minutes late for take off—seriously, we’ve flown this flight six times in the last eighteen months and it has never left the gate on time. We will also be late landing—six times and we’ve never arrived on time. Thankfully, we have old equipment, disgusting seats, crappy food, and Indian immigration and customs ahead—perhaps a story for another time.
The flight attendant stops by with a tray of water, juice, and champagne. We choose four glasses of the latter, two for me and two for my wife. We wash every inch of the seats with anti-bacterial wipes and hope we don’t catch anything incurable on our way home to Hyderabad—BA’s India-bound equipment is that gross. I will never understand how a company that makes as much as it does off the Indian traveler can supply them with such shoddy aircraft.
This is how we fly to India.
Cover photo courtesy of Robert G. Allen of Pro Image Photography, Boise, Idaho. You can contact Robert and see more of his work at proimage-photo.com or text 208-409-8407. (Image downloaded from Unsplash at https://unsplash.com/search/airport?photo=jRlslrpk6ek)
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Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned. Copyright can be found here for my original work.