The Taste With Vir: Air India needs to fight its crooks and tyrants if it wants to keep living off our money
I wrote, some weeks ago, about how all travellers --- no matter how frequent --- always feel a level of nervousness at airports. The reason, for this, I said, was that too many airports are filled with small people, who feel big and powerful when they get into their uniforms and enjoy the power they have over passengers.
But, over the last week, I have found a new variant of Small Man-Big Uniform syndrome. It is called Single-Maggot Syndrome. Just as a single maggot can destroy a whole silo of grain, a single bad uniformed person at an airport can destroy the image of a well-run organisation.
Two instances over the last week have made me conscious of this.
Let’s start with the CISF. The quality of CISF security varies from airport to airport but by and large both Delhi and Mumbai airport have officers who work hard under enormous pressure.
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Last week at Delhi airport I chanced upon the CISF’s Single Maggot. I noticed that on one belt, as bags were being scanned, one officer was being rude and obnoxious with passengers. (Not with me, to be fair.)
The way scanning works is that the officer at the screen can pull out any bag that looks suspicious. When there is an alert, he will be more careful, worrying about anything that is not clear on his screen.
In the old days, another officer would then manually search your bag before letting you board. But last week, as bags were pulled out from the scan, they refused to do manual searches. “Just pull out all electronic items and we will rescan your bags,” they said.
Fair enough, again.
Except that on this belt, an officer was shouting at passengers and saying “take out a pen if there is one in your bag?” “Take out your spectacles.” And so on. The list seemed to be endless. He was rude and bullied cowering passengers. At least one guy objected to the mindlessness of it all. He was shouted at.
I went to see the senior officer to complain on behalf of the terrorised passengers. He had the long-suffering air of a man who is under enormous pressure.
“What are they not letting you take?” he asked me.
“Nothing”, I said. “This is not about me.”
“Then why are you complaining?”
Finally, I got the message through and he conceded that his officer was going about it the wrong way.
But what of the passengers who were too scared to complain?
Behold the power of the uniformed man at an airport!
The second instance of Single Maggot syndrome is much worse. My wife and I were travelling Air India to London. Everything was perfect. I am an Air India loyalist --- and have huge admiration for the people of Air India.
Then, we got to the gate. Air India has uniformed security officers who check passports to see if you have a visa for your destination. (This is a measure of abundant caution: Immigration has already checked the visa.) This is done because if you are denied entry at your destination, the airline has to bear the cost of bringing you back. (Most airlines check your visa when you check in but Air India with its vast staff gets yet another person only to perform this function at the gate.)
My wife showed her UK visa. She was waved through. Then the uniformed security guy checked my passport. I was born in the UK so I don’t need a tourist visa. Instead, I have something called a Certification of Entitlement stamped on my passport which looks like a visa and gives me right of residence in the UK.
I have travelled on this out of India all my life and it’s not a problem. This time, however, the Air-India guy (assigned specifically to do this job and overman the gate!) had never seen one before. So I explained it to him, showed him the wording where it said I could live in the UK if I wanted.
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No, he said, you need a visa along with this.
I explained it all again as did the Air India commercial staff who know me as a frequent flyer and told him that I always used this.
“You cannot travel today,” he told me and indicated to the staff that he would not let me board.
I asked if I could speak to someone more senior. He then left the counter and I followed him to an isolated area. I have no idea what he expected me to do in a place where we had some privacy (though some possibilities do come to mind) but I was determined to explain the situation to someone who understood visas. He refused to let me speak to anyone.
“You will not travel today,” he repeated.
Finally, just as they were about to close the flight, he conceded that the phrase ‘right of entitlement’ meant I had the right o enter the UK.
Then, he thought of a new objection. My passport has two booklets. The British stamp was on the older booklet. “That means it is now invalid,” he said.
Followed, once again, by: “I will not let you travel.”
My wife was shocked. “But my visa is also on the old booklet of my passport and you just waved me through,” she pointed out.
I explained to him that my passport only expired in 2023. I showed him the expiry date on the first booklet. I had got a new booklet because I needed fresh pages.
By now, it was clear he was being bloody-minded. After one objection had not worked, he had invented another one. Obviously, I had not lived up to his expectations or had displeased him in some way. And he had the power to make me miss my flight.
The stand-off continued for 15 minutes past the departure time. Thankfully the gate staff refused to close the flight till I boarded.
Eventually, he gave in with bad grace. The flight had been delayed for 15 minutes; hundreds of passengers had been inconvenienced and I was worried and shaken even if I had avoided being shaken down.
So here’s the danger with Single Maggots. Because I write columns like this one, am on social media etc. I can protest and complain, on behalf of myself and others.
But what happens to those who don’t? Do they have to suffer because of such people? Do they have to pay off some officer to get on to a flight they have every right to board?
The short answer: yes.
The system will not help you. And usually, the odds are stacked against you. I have a certain sympathy for the CISF so I will not hold that officer’s behaviour against them.
But Air-India?This is just unforgivable. The airline is struggling to survive, its staff work super-hard just to make it seem like a going concern. And you and I, as taxpayers, shell out thousands of crores to keep Air India flying.
And yet for 30 minutes, a man in a uniform was allowed to hold a passenger hostage for no good reason. Not one senior person from Air-India security turned up. Nor did he seem frightened that his superiors would find out how unreasonable (I hesitate to use the word ‘greedy’) he was being.
If the commercial staff at the gate had not refused to close the flight, this man would have ensured that I missed it.
And perhaps the next time I travelled I would have had to find a way to satisfy him. Or to make him happy.
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