WALT BARANGER: No Passage to India
Our wandering guest columnist experiences the bewildering logic of the Indian bureaucrat in the name of airport security. Pray for those still in the terminal.
By WALTER BARANGER
DELHI — The new Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi has quickly earned a reputation for two things: Very long walks to the gates and a byzantine transfer process for transit passengers.
Sadly, for the uninitiated — and that’s most people — the transfers make the 15-minute hikes to the gates look easy. Think Soviet bread lines in the 1960s. Leave yourself at least four hours when transiting Delhi; six is safer.
On a recent stopover en route to Paris from Kabul, Afghanistan I queued at the entrance to the transfer area until a guard (and there are a lot of guards) determined that I indeed was a transfer passenger. I was able to show my printed travel agency itinerary, which is good enough.
Travelers who keep their itineraries on computers or iPads are out of luck and must wait in an ante room while someone goes to the airline’s offices to obtain a printed itinerary.
I had a choice of seemingly identical transfers desks; one had a sign listing airlines and the names of their transfer agents, but mysteriously Air France was not listed. So I waited at the desk for about 15 minutes until I happened to spot a woman walking by with an Air France name tag. She informed me that I was in the wrong line and that I needed to join the queue at the Jet Airways desk.
After another wait in line, the boarding pass was quickly printed and the agent embellished it with a “T” hand written with a ballpoint pen (about which more later). My checked luggage receipt issued in Kabul was taken from me with the promise that I would get a new receipt at the gate; I was sure I had seen the last of my favorite REI suitcase.
I was pointed to the security line that would allow me to enter the main terminal, so off I went to join a queue that was even longer than the ones I had just endured. After a suitably Indian delay of maybe 30 minutes, my turn came.
All Indian airports treat carry-on baggage in the same curious fashion: A normal airline address tag is attached to each bag, and after inspection, it is stamped in purple ink, often so fuzzy that the date can’t be read. The tag can be from any airline — I try to pick Kingfisher Airlines because they look cool — and it doesn’t need to be the kind that can’t be detached. Just a plain old paper airline tag hanging by elastic string is OK.
(I’ve often wondered what would stop anyone from simply moving the stamped tag to another bag. And woe be to the person whose tag goes missing: Guards at the boarding gates will refuse to pass any bag that lacks a stamped tag. The passenger must return to the inspection area and get another. Savvy Indian travelers keep a handful of blank tags on hand should none be available.)
After negotiating this final hurdle, I heard a commotion. A group of European college-age travelers were arguing with the soldiers at the X-ray machine. It seems that when they collected their boarding passes, they failed to notice that one lacked the hand-written “T.”
This meant that the unlucky holder had to go back to the transfer desk and start over.
The brouhaha triggered two things: The woman holding the defective boarding card repeatedly offered to simply write a T on it (absolutely not!), and several people in line who found that their boarding passes also lacked a “T” quickly pulled out their pens and did exactly that.
The poor victim was last seen trundling off to the transfer desk. Meanwhile, those with quick penmanship skills passed unhindered.
Tidy paperwork is king in India. Indian computers are mainly used to make tidy paperwork. At the gate, I did get my new baggage receipt, but alas, the Australian businessman ahead of me was apoplectic. His carry-on baggage tag with the all-important purple stamp was gone.
So was all hope.