Saturday, 24 August 2013

Travails of traveling in a no-frills airline!

Some days you just have it plainly unlucky. Much as I can not bring it upon myself yet to travel alone in a train with our six month old and the time involved therein, in all our combined wisdom (read cleverness) I booked a  return ticket from Lucknow to Delhi for August nearly a month in advance. Not just that one even secretly congratulated oneself on saving a few hundred bucks due to early bird discount on the top travel website. 

For the uninitiated, traveling in India by air can leave you with a hole in the pocket and thanks to the Ministry of Civil Aviation jargonized concept of "unbundling of costs", private airlines can charge you for just about anything they deem fit.The ticket cost included something called the 'CUTE' charges in addition to the regular levies one had been paying so far. For a moment me and hubby were left wondering if it has got to do something with the cuteness of the baby tagging along with us! Much research later it manifested itself as Common User Terminal Equipment (CUTE) which means that passengers can reap the benefits of automated check-in from any CUTE enabled check-in counter, no matter to which airline they belong to. With all the years of economics behind me, I fail to understand this 'snowballing' of charges while one is already being made to shell out airport infrastructure and development fees. When I checked the trend at other international airports (like Cairns airport /Dallas-Fort Worth Airport) we only seem to be heading in the opposite direction. No wonder Malaysian low-fare carrier Air Asia  stopped flights to New Delhi and Mumbai from its Kuala Lumpur hub in March citing the steep increase in costs at the two facilities.Travel websites too seem to have taken a cue from the relaxed policy outlook on the matter and never forget to remind you of the convenience they afford, by charging a 'convenience fees' of Rs 300 per person over and above the ticket costs.

The bad luck had not even begun and as if flying with an infant is not a test of nerves enough, flying anywhere in this country on the eve of a National Holiday surely is. For me, nothing else could explain a kilometer long queue at the aircraft boarding gate whereby passengers were being made to open their baggage and each item physically examined by the crew members.As an officer myself, I appreciate the concern for security but checking loose articles from passenger baggage after the x-ray check makes no sense and if somebody intended real mischief, the crew members without any specialized equipment will clearly be unable to do much.

Upon my request for a loader to assist me with the checked-in baggage, I was politely informed by the air-hostess in her Indigo outfit, that the same shall be available near the conveyor belt. Upon reaching there however, unlike my previous trips, I was gladly informed that porter services at airports are a paid help now, just as it had been at the railway stations so far! Indian Railways however do not charge you for the infant, do they? Unlike our magnanimous Indian Railways, airlines ticket you for just about everything you carry on your person and that includes your infant too, no matter how young. Needless to mention, while you pay for the infant's boarding, you do not get a seat. 

This was just the beginning of an incredibly jinxed trip and due as I was to fly back on 13th (unlucky!), Hubby informed he has some official work in Delhi and would be flying back on 14th. The temptation of staying back for another day was too strong to resist and I immediately tried to reschedule my ticket.However, a rescheduling fee of Rs 1102 (Jet Lite) and a travel portal convenience fee of Rs 250 in addition to the fare differential of nearly 4K were too huge a cost per person to be borne for no apparent reason and much to the surprise of our staff in Lucknow, I flew back alone with the Small One, while Hubby joined us a day later.

The flight back home on 13th was the biggest challenge of all. While checking in my baggage, the lady at the counter requested me to make a payment of Rs 1500 before giving my boarding pass. I was flummoxed to learn the same. She informed me the charges @ Rs 250 per kg of extra baggage. It was the same 21 kg suitcase I had arrived in Delhi with and no significant additions had been made. Hubby, in particular, is overly cautious of airlines' baggage policy and while the free baggage ranges between 10-15 kg per passenger in economy for most airlines, between me and the Small One, we have always been way below the limit and I could never have imagined that airlines today are even free to choose their 'free' baggage allowance. The Jet Lite staffer in this particular case refused any free baggage allowance for the infant as per their airlines policy and insisted upon the payment of the said sum. I asked her the rationale behind the infant ticket in that case and she coolly informed me there are no levies apart from the 'fees and charges' in the ticket cost. I could have argued how is that different from my ticket cost in any case but decided to carry the Small One's diaper bag and feeding pillow as hand baggage (they permit 7 kg of that and weigh it just outside the boarding gate). 

Before taking my boarding pass however, I requested the intelligent lady , to put me on a left side window seat (A) as it would help me in feeding the infant during take off with some degree of privacy. The sensitivity and training of airline crew members, except for the infant safety instructions they have memorized by rote, is evident from the fact that the seat allotted to me was a left side aisle seat! The only lucky thing about the entire trip seemed to be an under-booked flight which enabled me to find a row of empty seats towards the back and I could thus nurse the baby in complete privacy and comfort. 

Leaving Delhi (where I grew up) and reaching Lucknow (my adopted hometown) had never been such a relief till this eventful journey I undertook with a six month old infant, three items of loose hand baggage and a checked-in suitcase weighing precisely 15 kg! Every cloud has its silver lining though and in this case, I found it to be literally true. The endless rain in Lucknow had resulted in a full rainbow arc in the sky and as I watched from the window of our plane, I forgot all the anguish I had nurtured through the journey and remembered Pablo Neruda's words, 

"Donde termina el arco iris, en tu alma o en el horizonte?
Where does the rainbow end,in your soul or on the horizon?"

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