Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Airport fails stress test on day of disruption

Calcutta: Calcutta airport's less than flattering reputation in terms of passenger amenities took a further beating amid Monday's weather-induced mayhem that had briefly propelled it to the top of the global list for delayed and cancelled flights.

Crosswinds and heavy rainfall triggered by a deep depression had forced air traffic control to divert 26 flights during the day. Many more were cancelled or delayed, leaving thousands of passengers stranded for hours without even basic amenities like seating and food.

Airport officials said operations were partly affected by a manpower shortage since many employees, including those of airlines, could not report for duty because of inclement weather.

When conditions improved enough in the afternoon for aircraft to land and take off one after the other, the airport's infrastructure cracked under the pressure of traffic. The wait for baggage at the conveyor belts stretched to more than an hour in some cases, the time spent in boarding queues evoked memories of lining up for cash post-demonetisation and finding a trolley provided the joy of winning a lottery.

Metro spoke to some passengers who went through the ordeal and survived to tell the tale.

Aborted boarding

When doctor couple Soma and Sanjib Sengupta, accompanied by their daughter, boarded an IndiGo flight to Visakhapatnam at 9.50am, they had reason to feel lucky that their short vacation was happening despite the weather. The flight, scheduled for departure at 10.30am, never took off.

"We were kept waiting inside the aircraft well past the departure time. There was no in-flight announcement," recounted Soma. "I asked the cabin crew when the flight would take off and they said the captain was on another flight that was unable to land because of crosswinds."

As the minutes ticked by, many of the passengers complained about feeling claustrophobic, forcing the cabin crew to reopen the aircraft doors. "Some got up and stood near the doors to breathe some fresh air. It was raining heavily and the wind was strong. It seemed the plane was going through turbulence even on the ground," Soma said.

Light snacks were served by the airline, although it did little to calm the anxious passengers. Soma said she whiled away more than two hours chatting with the cabin crew while many passengers were glued to their mobile phones and gadgets. Finally, around 12.15pm, it was announced that the flight had been cancelled.

"I asked the airline staff why we were asked to board the aircraft when they were not sure whether the flight would take off. Nobody had an explanation for that," Soma said.

Wheelchair woes

Indrani Das Gupta, 55, was to travel to Delhi on an Air India flight scheduled to take off at 10am. She spent 12 hours in the security hold, most of that seated beside a 74-year-old co-passenger with limited mobility. "The lady was travelling alone. There was a wheelchair next to her but no attendant to take her to the washroom," she said.

Indrani was willing to push the wheelchair but did not find anybody she could trust to keep an eye on her belongings when she was away. "I was alone too, and it's a pity I couldn't help the lady. With some assistance, she stood up and dragged herself to the washroom," she said.

Indrani had reached the airport around 8am. Her flight took off at 8pm. "I could have gone to a lounge had I known boarding would be delayed by so many hours," Indrani said.

No chair, no food

Arka Sanyal, 18, had reached the airport at 10am to take an IndiGo flight to Bhubaneswar that was scheduled for departure at 11.55am. He got his boarding pass and went through security check not knowing what awaited him in the security hold, which was by then teeming with people, most of them standing.
"My son spent hours there without even a place to sit. The F&B outlets had run out of food and he had no idea when his flight would leave," said mother Jhumpa today.

Arka's mobile phone battery was dying too and he couldn't find a point to recharge it. He finally boarded the flight around 5.30pm and it took off at 6.15pm.
11/10/17 Sanjay Mandal and Jhinuk Mazumdar/Telegraph
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