Thursday, January 15, 2015

India: No hablo Indian Airport

I consider myself to be fluent in airport.  Give me a passport, a plane ticket, and a credit card, and I'll feel at home at pretty much any airport in the world.  (It helps that English is the international language of aviation.

Indian airports, however, seem to speak a dialect I've never encountered before.

Flying through four Indian airports in a week (Shanghai to DEL to CCU to BOM to IDR to DEL to Shanghai*) gave us plenty of exposure to their quirks.  Two experiences in particular stand out: processing our visas on arrival in Delhi, and flying domestic ("domestic") on Air India from Delhi to Kolkata. 

Visa on arrival
India, sadly, does not fall into the list of 160+ countries where Americans can travel without a visa.  Right before our trip, though, they started offering visa on arrival for Americans.  Perfect!  No need to find the Indian embassy in Shanghai!  We applied online (note: you still need to apply online before travel to India, unlike VOA in some other countries), paid the fee, and were approved within 24 hours. Easy peasy.

When we landed at the airport in Delhi, though, things were... not so organized.  Suffice it to say, visa on arrival for Americans is *so* new that the systems to process it were literally being put in place around us -- down computers, dizzying amounts of off-gassing, and all.  After a half-hour group effort by the immigration officials, all huddled around one computer to navigate the system, B.'s visa was successfully processed, his passport stamped.  He did a little dance.  The waiting crowd broke out in applause.  Ten minutes later, mine was successfully processed too and we were on our way.  We were two of the first people to pass through the new Delhi visa on arrival center.

Growing pains at the New Delhi airport
The New Delhi airport (DEL) has two terminals.  Colloquially, they're known as the domestic terminal and the international terminal.  At one point, perhaps not so long ago, those qualifiers may have been accurate.  Now, however, they're not.  When flying through the Delhi airport, all belief in accurate signage and logic must be suspended (except when it shouldn't). 

Thus, despite the fact that we were flying domestic to Kolkata, our Air India flight departed from the international terminal (as do all Air India flights these days). After check-in, we -- incorrectly -- waited in the domestic departures security line (still in the international terminal), only to be sent over to the international side... where an airport official had to wave us around the immigration booths, since we were not actually leaving India.  And upon landing in Kolkata, we found ourselves in international arrivals where, confusingly, we were made to clear customs... despite having come from Delhi.    

Some other quirks for the uninitiated:
  • Entering the airport: In this age of online booking and mobile internet, B. and I rarely print out our flight info or e-tickets anymore -- we just rock up at the check-in counter, hand over our passports, tell them our destination, and everything works out.  In India, though, armed soldiers guard the airport entrances, restricting access to those who could prove they were flying that day.  Print your itinerary!
  • Carry-on luggage: Not so much an issue as an iteration I hadn't seen before: when carry-on luggage was screened by security, it was tagged and stamped.  The stamped tags were checked again just before boarding the plane to make sure nothing had snuck through unscreened.
  • Flight delays: Indian airlines have a notoriously bad on-time record, especially when traveling through foggy (smoggy) Delhi during the winter.  From Nov 2014 to Jan 2015, Air India boasted a paltry 58% on-time rating for its top 20 routes.  Our three Air India flights were delayed for an average of 5 hours -- luckily, we *just* made our connection on the way back.  For those traveling in India in the future, our Indian friends say that IndiGo has the best on-time rating (89% to Air India's 58%, flying many of the same routes). 
  • Connections: I couldn't tell you exactly what the problem was with our connecting flights.  I think it's a problem of poor airport design (or at least poor for how they're used now) plus poor signage and slow lines.  Suffice it to say, connections were much slower and more complicated than they needed to be.  Finding the gate for our connecting flight in Mumbai felt like a scavenger hunt!
  • Announcements: Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai are all silent airports.  None of the loud announcements exhorting passengers to prepare for the pre-boarding process.  I'm a fan.
Final takeaway: when flying in India, leave extra time, bring patience and a sense of humor, and go with the flow.  You'll get there eventually.

* DEL = New Delhi.  CCU = Kolkata (formerly Calcutta).  BOM = Mumbai (formerly Bombay).  IDR = Indore.

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