Where Hope Goes to Die (Delhi)

It’s amazing how when everything is going wrong – really, truly, horrifyingly wrong – you suddenly develop psychic time traveling powers.  Maybe it’s an adrenaline thing.  Maybe the emotional weight of self-flagellation, recrimination and regret breaks through the mental walls holding the space time continuum in place and suddenly, even if in mind only, alternate realities clarify to startlingly precision.  Curled up under the payphone in Indira Gandhi International airport, clutching the travel pack of tissues a concerned bystander passed over my shoulder, hiccupping on the half breaths that follow complete emotional meltdown, as I stare dead-eyed at the floor, I have the vision of myself as I could-have-should-have-would-have-if-only-jesus-christ-why-why-why been.   Said self is curled comfortably in her window seat, feet perched on the seat in front, watching the clouds below as they amble past, watching the sunlight play on the wing, listening to music, sipping a bloody mary or maybe a glass of wine.  She’s smiling to herself because she loves being in transit.  She loves the view from a plane.  She loves the quiet feeling of superiority she gets because she enjoys flying while so many other people see it as a chore.  And she’s smiling because just had the most amazing adventure and now she’s going home. She is blissfully unaware of her real world alternative self, rocking to the 80’s power pop hold music now in its 25th loop of the its 90 second playing time.

Because I am in many ways a fatalist (and bit of a narrator) I want to figure out where I went wrong.  Not looking for the concrete “check your flight details more than once” kind of mistakes, but the grander spiritual wrong turns that foreshadow catastrophe (ok, strong word… but still).  Maybe my mistake was the premature celebration.  Before coming to Indiaso many people responded with horror (“India?? Oh god, be careful!”), disbelief (“But why would you go there?”) or smirking disdain (“Good luck.”).  Even seasoned travelers, people I knew to be strong-willed, adventurous and open-minded responded to “India” as if I’d just said “Macbeth” in a theatre.  As a result I spent the first two months in India waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Waiting for whatever was going to go wrong, to go as horribly and irreversibly wrong as I’d been lead to believe it would.  But it never happened.  Minor annoyances?  Sure.  Difficulties?  Absolutely.  But did India ever serve up the bitch slap to the floor I’d been led to expect?  Absolutely not.  Returning to Leh after our week of trekking in the Himalayas, with the knowledge that my time in India was coming to an end, I had the kind of bittersweet sadness you feel on saying goodbye to a loved one.  The time is always too short but you know in your being, one way or another, you’ll see each other again.

Of course I also may have created a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Because while in India I met countless travelers, people doing it, living it and loving it, people on their second and sometimes third visit to the country who uniformly referred to Delhi as “that godforsaken place.”  And so my apprehension and superstition crystalised around the city itself.  Delhi became my Soddom & Gomorrah.  The manifestation of all my fears.  The representation of ever imagined terror.  The black hole of India into which the light disappears, and hope and adventure and joy go to die.  I had no desire to visit but as the capital, international flights from Indira Gandhi are the cheapest.  I only had to stay one night.  I found an inexpensive hotel a ten minute cab ride from the airport and resolved to hole up for the night with a duty free bottle of wine, my air conditioning and terrible American movies on Indian cable TV.  Delhi was going to get no part of me.

Choking on exhaust fumes, the cement flyover on my left doing nothing to protect my head from the scorching mid-day sun, I shut down my brain to avoid it accepting reality.  I’d been walking for about 10 minutes, lips moving in an endless mantra of wishful thinking, “Nice, honest man.  Nice, honest man.  Nice, honest man.”  My taxi driver could be a nice, honest man.  So he swung into the curb like a kamikaze on the run from the law and waved me into the cab without looking at my receipt (a receipt 36 other cab drivers glanced at and waved away).  So he’s kept me at the curb at the airport for 15 minutes while he chatted with another driver.  So we’d been in motion for 15 seconds before he started trying to convince me that my hotel was no good and but his cousin’s hotel nearby was much better.  So he flagged down another driver on the highway to get directions to my hotel all while we were still moving.  So I had to finally resort to rudeness to stop the endless sales pitch “Look, the hotel is paid for and I’m meeting my friend there.  Please just take me where I want to go!”  All that could just be circumstantial.  He could have been telling the truth when he pulled over on the other side of the flyover and explained that my hotel was just two minutes walk on the other side.  It’s better for me to walk because he has to drive a mile up to turn around and then we’ll sit in traffic on the other side for 35 minutes.  But if I jump out here I walk for two minutes and I’m there.  I just can’t see it because the flyover’s in the way.  He swore!  He promised!  He gave me a look that said he was just a hard working father trying to support his family.  And finally I sighed and started heaving my pack out of the backseat saying, “I really hope you are a nice, honest man.”

Finally I saw a sign that could have been for my hotel.  Hope cascaded out of my heart into a tentative grin as I darted through the four congested lanes, sidestepped rickshaws and taxis and motos to climb over the stinking gutter onto the sidewalk.  I was full of the possibility of goodness in Delhi, gleeful in the confirmation of my faith in humanity.  The doorman walked up to meet me with an open arm and a friendly smile.

“You need room, madam?”
“Is this Hotel Eurostar International?”
“No, this Star International Hotel.  Eurostar International twenty minutes back that way.”

It’s an unfortunate fact that life keeps teaching me.  Because I’m a self-sufficient, adventurous feminist.  And a bad-ass.  And I find it truly embarrassing to be revealed as anything less.  But the fact remains, if you want help in this world and you’re a girl, the absolute best thing you can do is start to cry.  Now it’s not something I would ever, ever use as a prop because frankly the red eyes, puffy face and sinus headache much less the overwhelming feeling of shame at having let myself down are in no way worth it, but it fucking works.  Because five minutes later Star International Hotel’s very kind receptionist had me in a private hotel car with a driver who delivered me to the door of my destination with a rueful smile and a commiserate “Welcome to India.”

Gail arrived seven hours later to find me bleary eyed at the bottom of a bottle of red wine watching Alvin and The Chipmunks 2.  Take that Delhi.

I was practically dancing at the door of the Terminal the next morning in my sheer childish glee at being on my way to London where I’d see my friends and on my way home where I’d see my family, at being imminently able to expose my shoulders and knees and get drunk in public and be sweepingly sarcastic without fearing misinterpretation.  I hugged Gail goodbye and headed to International Departures with a spring in my step and a song in my heart.  The uniformed man with a gun guarding the entrance pointed me towards guest services to print out my E-Ticket and I returned ten minutes later practically quivering with delight.

“Hello!  Here it is!”
“Yes thank you.”

“You’ve missed your flight.”
“WHAT??  No I haven’t!  My flight’s at 12.40!”
“No your flight lands in London at 12.40.  It left here an hour ago.”

Rather than rehash what followed (which will go down in my personal history, death and heartbreak aside, as the worst day of my life) I submit the following letter of complaint for your information and entertainment.

American Airlines Customer Relations
P.O. Box 619612 MD 2400
DFW Airport, TX 75261-9612

To Whom It May Concern,

You will find attached the final record details for my recent travel booked through your airline as well as a copy of my phone bill with charges totaling $180 highlighted.  I am submitting this as receipt for reimbursement as well as detailing my complaints as to the quality of customer service received below.

As you will see from the record details in your system on Aug 14 2012 I missed my originally booked flight from Delhi to London.  While I take full responsibility for that occurrence what followed was a day of extreme emotional and financial trauma for me which I consider to be completely unacceptable.

As it seems none of your staff at American Airlines are aware, Delhi airport is inaccessible to anyone not holding a valid ticket for transport within the next four hours.  Having missed my flight I had access only to a small section of the airport called “Visitor Services” which provides only internally linked telephones to contact their chosen carrier and a staffed desk which provides e-ticket printouts.  On none of the multiple lengthy attempts to contact American Airlines on these telephone was there ever an answer.  Distraught I went to the entrance again, begging for help and was told by the armed uniformed soldiers under no circumstances could I enter the airport.  Seeing my distress one officer went inside to inquire for me and returned with the information that with the morning flight already departed and American not running another flight until the evening there was no American Airlines staff in the building who could help me.  He had however been given an external telephone number I could call.

Back at guest services I searched in vain for a pay phone.  Finding none, I resorted to asking if there was a landline I could use at another airline’s ticketing counter where I was told, there were none.  Again, seeing my distress a sales representative lent me her personal cell phone to make the call.  When I finally redirected to the correct number and connected to an agent I was told there was no availability on American flights from Delhi to London until the 21st of August and should I require further assistance I needed to call the US help desk.  Obviously unable to make an international call from a stranger’s cell phone I was now stranded once again.  As you can see from my itinerary, my connection from London to New York was booked for only three days later.  I did not have the option of sending another night in Delhi (much less 7) but needed to leave the same day.

Desperate I was once again reduced to begging favours from the local staff and was allowed to use the internet at E-Ticket print out desk where I was able to book a new flight leaving Delhi that evening and connecting to London through Dubai for $600.  Now in possession of a new ticket I was able to pass the security checkpoint to a waiting area for those with flight more than 4 hours in the future and a further check point to the arrivals hall.  After calming down, I found a pay phone and called the US help desk to inform them of the change.  Explaining my situation a very rude agent told me “You can’t DO that!” at which point I asked to speak to a supervisor who explained the international convention that would prevent me from changing the country of departure on my ticket which prevented me from taking the flight I had booked myself without losing the further three connections (New York, San Francisco and Bangkok) on my original ticket.  Unfortunately as she began to search for other options to get me out of the country the same day the power was cut to the phone bank and I was disconnected.  After navigating the automated system for a third time a new agent found me a flight option on Jet Airways that would depart from Delhi that evening connecting through Mumbai.  After putting me on hold for nearly THIRTY minutes to speak to ticketing I was informed the new flight would cost just less than $1300 nearly doubling the price of the four stop ticket I had originally booked.  So overcome with the enormity of this news I was unable to respond to the agent for a few minutes, at which point the agent inquired “Miss, would you like to purchase the flight?”  When I was able to respond I asked, “Do I have a choice?”  “Not really,” was his response.  Held ransom to this enormous fee by the necessity to leave that day and inability to use the ticket a full $700 dollars cheaper that I had found on my own, I gave my credit card details and was told the matter was finally taken care of.

Unfortunately it was not.  Five hours later, with one hour until I would finally be able to pass through security to the departures terminal, I went to the E-Ticket print out desk to get my new E-Ticket.  It had not arrived.  Exhausted from the ordeal already, rather than pass through the four security checks between me and the phone and the E-Ticket counter again I resorted to using my US cell phone.  Once again finally connected to an agent and having explained my situation I was dealt with rudely “What do you mean you need your ticket to get into the airport?  That doesn’t even make SENSE.  What about people who don’t have COMPUTERS.”  I was then put on hold for 10 minutes while the agent tried to rectify the issue which was explained.  Finally I was told the seat had been “gotten back for me” and a new E-Ticket would be in my inbox in 15-20 minutes.

Check-In for the flight was now open so I crossed to the other side of the terminal for domestic departures.  At the Jet Airways Ticketing desk I was told there was no record of my name on the flight.  Crossing back to the Visitors Services area I was allowed by the kind staff there to once again use the internet and found the E-Ticket had once again not arrived.  Crossing once again to the other side of the airport I called the US Help Desk again.  Waiting at the Domestic Ticketing Desk while the agent on the telephone investigated I became aware that I was now in danger of missing the flight i had now spent 10 hours in the airport waiting for.  When 20 minutes later I finally had a copy of my E-Ticket in hand I literally RAN through the security check point at the door.  Luckily due to the late hour there was no wait for Check-In or at internal security and I arrived at the gate a full 5 minutes before boarding began.

Had I not been forced to incur $180 in calling charges I probably would never have bothered to write this letter since what it details is frankly, one of the worst days of my life.  As it stands i feel American Airlines owes me at minimum the balance of those call charges and an explanation why, with the knowledge that a competitor could provide the same transit for $600 booking the same trip on the same day, I should have been held to ransom for an extortionate $1300.  I feel there is a further case that American should refund the $150 cancellation fee for the flight I booked before I was able to speak to their representatives.  As a person of minimal personal assets, these expenses, incurred in one day, are more than I usually spend a month.

Once again I take full responsibility for missing my original flight.  And I understand that the security protocols at Delhi airport are beyond American Airline’s control.  But American Airlines has a duty of care to its customers whether in or out of the country.  If American is unable to provide that care to customers in India they should stop selling their services there.  Unless this matter is resolved in a timely and satisfactory manner, I not only will no longer patronize American Airlines, I will strongly discourage anyone else from doing so, both publicly and privately.

Cordially,

DM

cc’d:
Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Ave., S.E.
Washington, D.C.20590dr

Well played Delhi.  Well played.

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