The long queue outside is nowadays usual. But I was unperturbed. I had come in early and there were the Hajj passengers to photograph. The cat strolling through the airport was somewhat amusing. A man, who could have been Chinese, gave it some food. The cat knew his way around the place. I had found cat pooh on several occasions before, but now I had the source file!
Alarm bells should have rung when I found no notice of the flight on the electronic board. The lack of people at the Biman counter was a bigger case for alarm. My friend Porimol, a journalist from the Daily Star, who was also going to Kathmandu was in the queue. At least I was in the right place! It could have just been “Biman Time” I convinced myself. When no one had turned up by 10:00 am, we all went off to the Biman Sales counter. At least there was a Biman employee there. “We have had nothing official” they said, but hear that the flight might be cancelled. They had no arrangements for rerouting, or any other arrangement. Their excuse for not letting passengers know had some logic. Since they themselves hadn’t been told, what could they tell us?
With the characteristic swinging movement of the head interspersed with pendular oscillations that is characteristic of India, Sri Lanka, and to a lesser extent Nepal, Madhav Lohani at the GMG counter in Kathmandu replied, ?The flight is on time, but one hour delayed.? While similar, the movement has different meanings in these countries, but the wisdom of Mr. Lohani?s statement removed all ambiguity.
The 12:20 flight which had been rescheduled for 20:20, was now scheduled to depart at 21:20. The TV monitor meanwhile still kept up our spirits with the 20:20 departure time. I was meant to have been traveling on the Biman flight earlier in the day, but that flight too had been cancelled. No one from Biman had been on the counter to explain, so I only learnt of the news when a friendly porter confided in me. Had Mr. Lohani been there, surely his head would have nodded while he said, ?The flight is on time but one day delayed.?
My friend also arranged for me to meet the station manager, and his generous embellishment of my CV with appropriate gesticulations convinced the official that I was an important passenger. In a country where VVIPs lurk under every blade of grass, the station manager was not going to take a risk, whether the plane was ?on time? or not. The plane from New York had never arrived the previous day, the hapless official explained. He himself had only been informed an hour ago. He left with my ticket, my porter friend in tow. The necessary endorsement was done, and my friend returned with my ticket, with appropriate scribbles on the backside. He refused bakshish, but helped me through the reverse journey through security. On the way to the taxi, he did whisper that the Biman salary was very low. After nearly twenty years in service he was still hired as a daily worker and received no pension. Having convinced himself that I was important, he felt, I could perhaps make a difference. The right word to the right ear. He didn?t quite believe my answer when I explained I had no such powers.
I had no way of knowing why the flight was delayed. There had been no announcements, and certainly no one at Biman had felt the need to explain or apologise, but one can guess. Rahnuma, on hearing I was trying to catch a GMG flight had sent a warning SMS. Yesterday?s GMG from Delhi had been delayed from 10 in the morning to 10 at night. Even then it had arrived at 2:48 in the morning rather than the ?expected? 1:48 am. ?The flight had been delayed, but was not on time.?
Harun ur Rashid of GMG did under siege from enraged passengers admit their flight had been grounded, as had another flight the day before. Predictably, the ?on time but delayed? flight, became an ?on time but cancelled? flight. We made new friends on the microbus taking us to the hotel. Biman jokes appear to be the new fad. The fact that GMG had asked Biman to come to their rescue brought the house down. Our choice today of rescheduled GMG or Biman flights was particularly ironic.
Apparently the chief adviser had been flying on the GMG flight from Delhi. The traffic jams every time a VVIP passes through the streets are things we have reluctantly become used to. Roads may be dug up, barriers placed, a meeting arranged in the middle of a busy street or an office unexpectedly closed, for some reason that the public would never be informed about. Public servants never considered themselves the servants of the public. Elected representatives never felt the voters had entitlements. Who will remind our VVIPs that it is the taxes paid by all those people, bumped off planes and stranded in hot streets that pay their salaries? Lack of accountability is a dangerous disease. A government that has come in with the express intent of establishing accountability and transparency needs to set a very different example. Not the message one gets on hearing ?the election is on time but two years delayed.?
Stop Press: As we prepare to board the coach for the airport for the now ‘confirmed’ flight at 4:00 pm, Sweta from the hotel intercepts us by saying, the flight is not confirmed and there is at least another two hours delay. It might be a long two hours!
If ever I’d wanted to savour the decadence of flying in a private jet, this was it. The F28 seats 78, less one for the flight engineer. I had the choice seat, 1F, right hand window seat, perfect for viewing the Everest. As it turned out, it didn’t matter too much. There were only four other passengers, and we could have taken any seat we chose, left, right, window, and aisle. Had it been a long flight, I would have sprawled across three seats and snored away.Service was excellent. Captain Enam was a photographer and we had fun talking pictures. Never before have I known each passenger in my flight. No queues on arrival, baggage on the belt, even before we’d arrived. Wonderful. Except of course for Biman or the environment. A conservative estimate of a flight to Kathmandu costs Taka 2 lakh. That’s Taka 40,000 per passenger on flight 703. The enormous environmental damage for ferrying five people to a neighbouring country was staggering.
The F28 we were flying was old, water dripped onto the seats, the shuddering panels had withstood daily wear and tear for some 35 years. Still, Bangladesh had paid some nine crore (ninety million) taka for this craft.
I could hear the mumbling in the ground. Cautious comments about how top management never consulted the rest of the staff, how decisions were made on political rather than technical or economic grounds. Rama, a Nepali passenger whose father worked in Cosmic Air commented on how they had expected the flight to be packed because the afternoon flight of Cosmic Air had been cancelled. She was surprised that despite such numbers there were two flights to Kathmandu on the day.
The comments then veered to Biman as a whole. “Amra Borishale batash ani nei” (We only transport air to Barisal and back, there are no passengers), said a Biman official. “Chowdhury shahab er bari Borishale, oi flight ki ar thaman jaibo (Mr Chowdhury the minister- is from Barisal, fat chance you have of stopping those flights).
I enjoyed my flight. I bet the two cockroaches who kept me company did too.