Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Hemantha Kalam - 16 'To Fly or Not To Fly - That is the Question'


There have been so many discoveries and inventions across the time. But, to me, two inventions are above all - the airplane and the internet - as both allow me to fly, physically and mentally and take me to most places where I wish to be. I am fortunate that the invention of internet took place during my life time and allowed me to use this wonder.

But when I was young and though I have been making use of several other inventions-consciously or unconsciously, it was the airplane that I was always fascinated by.

The first time, I had ever seen an airplane, was sometime in the early 1960s when one of my father’s cousin boarded a plane to Hyderabad. That was the time when air passengers were treated like demi-Gods. The then Chennai airport, though was petite, resembled a small star hotel (today it has become the air cargo office/entry). You could drive the car up till the arrival gate and saunter inside and anybody entering the portals of the airport was held in awe. And people accompanying the passengers to see them off were allowed till the lip of the tarmac and wave at the passengers. Today I dread wading through the cars and hunting for a parking spot there.

Those were also the days when it was customary of all passengers to pause for a few seconds at the top of the boarding stairs at the entrance of the flight and wave generally at all (those who missed witnessing this ritual can see the same in some of the old Indian movies) and enter the flight - which was either a Dakota or a Vickers Viscount plane. Later the Indian fleet had a complement of the sleek Caravelle Jets and steadily went on upgrading.

In the same vein, I have to say that in 2012, almost half a century later, I had enjoyed similar luxury of being driven (taxiing) in the airplane itself (ATRs of course) upon landing, up to the ‘porte cochere’ of the cute airports, in places like Pakse & Savannakhet in Laos PDR.

Interestingly, at that point of time (the 1960s), I was awe-struck only to see the planes on the tarmac or take off or land, but unlike many kids who used to say that their life ambition was to become a pilot or fly a plane, I never nurtured such dreams. In fact, when my father was associated in work with the President of India and we had the most unique privilege of seeing the innards of the Presidential flight (those days, there was not such security paranoia as today’s circumstances warrant), I was not keen and my kid brother used the opportunity. When I could get flying hours as a sponsorship I was not keen and I do not regret that either.

But till date I am fascinated by the landing or take off of an airplane and even while driving my car nearer the airport, I crane out of the car window trying to catch a glimpse if a flight is landing - so majestically. While visiting London, I spent more than an hour behind the Premier Inn, where I was staying and whose back yard gave a very clear opportunity of taking the photographs of all the big metallic birds landing one after another into the Heathrow Airport and I felt I did not have enough.

When I was studying in A. M. Jain College, Meenambakkam, Chennai, India, my favourite pastime in the lunch time, during all the three years in college was to walk up to the airport across the road, cling onto the barbed fence (Now we cannot do that anymore, alas!) to watch the flights landing or take off. My favourite, especially, was the Singapore Airlines, whose landing, I always admired.

It was only during the mid-1980s that I actually had an occasion to fly in a plane-for the first time. I was needed to lend a helping hand to launch a beverage of my company, in Hyderabad. I just had had a bad scooter accident and both my ankle and elbow were packed in bandages and found it difficult to travel by train or bus.

So I had been asked to fly and it was a privilege, as in those days the rules and regulations of the company did not permit a measly clerk to fly. III / II AC travel in a train was fine, but no sir, not a flight. So, I sort of broke some records and felt high. Having seen the treatment given to the air passengers by the airports (when I was a kid), I felt that I should wear proper attire and not to wear sandals on a flight. So with difficulty and pain, I packed my bandaged foot into a shoe and went in. I was very happy that in my immediate family I was the first to fly and felt important (though my father was connected well with the powers that be, he remained humble and till day-he is 83 now-he has never visited Delhi, the capital city even once and took a flight, only at our persistent compulsions, just a couple of years ago).

While I was buoying my ego thus, wallowing in my first flight, I found a gentleman (another passenger-but should I call him a gentleman?) walking towards me in the aisle inside the flight. To start with, he was wearing a white Dhoti and a white slack shirt with the top buttons opened. He was wearing bathroom sandals and one whose holding strap was broke, was held by a safety pin. One lock of his bulging brief case could not be fastened properly. My balloon of ego was instantly pricked as I felt that all my ‘dress’ rehearsals and preparations were to naught as I found, in the current situation, such precautions were so redundant. Anybody could walk in any attire and in any condition. I started growing.

Even at that time, the service in the flight was debatable. I had asked for a glass of water when we were airborne and at last when it was given to me, in a dirty plastic glass, with a scornful scowl on the face of the stewardess (a face and a gesture that is forever etched in my mind), the flight had landed and taxiing on the tarmac. In those days, disposable cups or tiny water bottles were not in vogue in flight and Indian Airlines being the only airline operating on the domestic routes / sectors, it was either you accept what is given or go take a walk - if you can.

Later, I had occasions to travel by national and international flights that ranged from 11 seater Dorniers to ATRs to Boeing 747s to the latest Boeing 787 Dreamliners (yes, sadly I missed the Concorde and am hopeful of its revival and my making it once, before I call my days off) and was mostly at ease in all the flights.

Surprisingly, I could sit through the most violent turbulences (especially over Atlantic) in a relaxed manner. I could easily make friends with the support crew, both on the ground and in the flights. On international flights, I take walks, every couple of hours, within the flight, to relax from being cramped in the seats for too long. And in almost all the flights, I was served vegetarian food (mostly Asian Vegetarian Meal or AVML) thanks to Mr. Venkatesh, of Seshraj Travels, Chennai, who is such a gent and who always ensured that my tickets had the word AVML ticked at the food preference column. AVML is considered as 'special meals' on several international flights and are served first so that the stewardesses / crew can breathe easily and get on serving all normal food to the rest.

When I talk of food, the best food I enjoyed in the domestic sector was served by Sahara, now taken over by Jet Airways and is nomenclatured Jet Konnect and in British Airways, Emirates and Thai Airways. The warm buns and croissants served by Thai are so yummy that I always ask for one more, unashamed. 

Surprise of surprises came when I was travelling on Lao Airlines which also supplied the Laos version of the AVML, but a good one at that, in March 2013 - maybe for the first time? Again Mr. Venkatesh may easily claim credit for starting AVML for the first time in an international airlines. Lao Airlines have been acquiring big planes only now and so far most of the flights have been ATRs and quite clean. And I had opportunities to see the planes being cleaned too. J

But the innumerous travels, in over three decades, also gave me a lot of material to cherish, enjoy, ponder, remember and also abhor.

While travelling one night from Mumbai to Chennai sometime in Mid-1995, by the East West Airlines (India), the second private airlines in India and since ceased to operate, the pilot pointed out to all who cared that we were flying over the Tirupathy Tirumala Temple (Andhra Pradesh, India) and we can take a look if we are interested. The golden temple bathed in all the lights was looking like a bowl of jewels and I knew I have been one of the few chosen to witness that spectacle.

While travelling by Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Chennai, I had in my next seat, a director of a reasonably visible Tamil Nadu based Finance Company, who did not allow any beverage, that passed in the aisle, un-served and ended up making a cocktail in his stomach. Finally, before landing, he went in to the galley and wangled from the stewardess, a handful of miniature liquor bottles for one at home.

There was this time, when a colleague of mine had brought in a slightly larger satchel and travelled from Chennai to Lisbon en route Fortaleza, Brazil, without a hitch, but the steward of TAP Airlines of Portugal, just refused to allow him the bag inside, as hand baggage, despite being passed through the whole security, giving us anxious moments.

The biggest problems in flights could sometimes be obnoxious odours caused by anything from strong scented flowers to spicy food to liquor (as also puking, because of excess liquor consumption) to ‘breaking wind’ by people. Many a time, several international flights are ‘fumigated’ and sprayed with perfumes (one can see this in Emirates almost all the times). 

Bawling by infants and children can create sleepless nights and unlike in trains, you cannot even escape by getting out of the flight while airborne and in mid-air. :-)

Trans-continental flights mostly require hopping and changing flights intermittently. But when I was travelling between Washington and India I was pleasantly surprised to board the same airplane that I had arrived in (with a different flight number though) at the breaking airport too and also drew the same seat - a rare coincidence.

There was this time when an important minister in the Indian Central Government was travelling by the national airlines while he himself in/directly owned a highly visible private airlines in the country. As a marketing guy, I felt that the national airlines lost an opportunity to advertise the fact that even private airlines owners travel with them.

While flights sometimes are enjoyable, with good movies that you had missed watching otherwise, sometimes the passengers create such nuisance on a regular basis that airlines crew feel it a punishment to work some sectors - like the Chennai-Bangkok sector for Thai airlines. Ever since travel agents in India and Thailand opened the flood gates to Thailand (especially Pattaya and Phuket) as an easily affordable and enjoyable destination, the traffic apparently increased significantly and every time I travel in this sector, it is a kaleidoscope of experiences.

Passengers travelling in a group may not always get seated nearby to each other. So when the group is seated in scattered rows and seats, all communication from one corner to another would be in the shouting form. There was one time when a passenger changed into a 'Lungi' (an adaptation of the Myanmarese 'Long yi') after removing his trousers, in the flight itself, to make his night comfortable. While it was funny to watch, it was also extremely annoying and in bad taste.

Once, on my way to Dubai, I saw a half-scared and timid person occupying the seat next to me. He was going to gulf to work as a gardener and obviously it was the first time he was in a flight and not at all used to eating with a spoon and a fork. I felt sad that the employing agents who find them jobs do not prepare these poor guys, adequately, to take flights and basic etiquette.

While flying from Delhi to Chennai, once, I encountered a boisterous group of Sardarjis (Sikhs) who started playing cards in the flight. The fun was that at least two of them did not know the game and how to play and started showing their cards and game to their rivals and seeking their recommendations. The whole thing was so hilarious that we did not notice time flying and the long ordeal of the journey appeared to be so pleasant and for once sadly quick.

Every time I was in a Kingfishers Airlines (again another good airlines that is not operating now), I used to see the President / Chairman of the Airlines appearing on the screens of the small monitors in front of each seat (a first in the domestic sector in India) welcoming the passengers and reassuring them that his crew were trained to extend the same respect and courtesy that he would extend to guests in his own house. Having heard this several times, on several trips with the airlines, one day I asked one of the air hostesses of Kingfisher whether she had ever visited the President / Chairman’s house. She was aghast and said ‘No, Why?’ and I asked, cheekily (I realise), if she had not visited his house how would she know as to how he treats his guests in his house? 

Talking of the crew, we now observe more and more women pilots manning the flights. But many a time, I notice that the co-pilot's name is mentioned louder than the Captain's name if the Captain happens to be a woman. A pity! I was flown many a time by women pilots, and I could never feel any difference.

I had an adventurous experience, on the 2nd December 2005, when I was returning from Mumbai in the night. As we were nearing Chennai, it rained cats and dogs and there was water on the tarmac. We were wondering whether we would be diverted to some other airport when the pilots deftly landed the flight - It was one of the best landings I had ever experienced; no jerks, no skids - The Jet Airways pilots on that night were fantastic. As we were disembarking, we could realise that water was ankle deep on the tarmac and steadily raising. That was the only flight that could actually land in so much of water that night while all other flights had been diverted. That was also the time when water entered and flooded the entire airport rendering it out of service at least for a couple of days. A rare event for the Chennai airport. http://www.hindu.com/2005/12/04/stories/2005120407940600.htm

While so much can be said of good and bad experiences, the experience of an accident or a hijack could be absolutely traumatic and especially when the whereabouts of a flight is unknown and becomes an enigma.

It has been over 10 days since Flight Number MH 370 / MAS 370 of the Malaysian Airlines (Marketed also as Flight 748 of China Southern Airlines) carrying a complement of 227 passengers from several countries and 12 crew members has been missing en route Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China from 8th March, 2014 and as of the time this blog is being uploaded there has been no definite news of its whereabouts.

While the whole world is waiting with bated breath to know of any possible and definite news on the fate of the missing flight, assumptuous theories abound with the latest seeming to confirm hijacking.

Having been an avid traveller on flights, I just try to think of the psychological status of the passengers and the crew who are burdened with not only their safety but also the safety of the passengers and the airplane. If it is an accident, the agony could be, but for a limited period. But in the case of a hijack, especially when no claim or demand has been made for so long, what would be the physical and mental status of passengers who could be babies, children, ill/sick, physically challenged, infirm, women, aged and who else? And the condition of their waiting kith and kin? What a pity and what a waste?

Imagine the limited access to food & beverages, toilets and sanitation and most importantly the lack of peace and sleep. Yes, it would be an unending nightmare and no human being should have to endure such a situation. If and when people do come out of such situations scathed or unscathed, what would their reaction to using flights later in their lives? Every time they are in the flights they will be reliving that horror.

And then arises the question- to fly or not to fly?

What do you think? You tell me! 

Till then, 

With Prayers for the travellers on the MH 370,

Krutagjnatalu (Telugu), Nanri (Tamil), Dhanyavaadagalu (Kannada), Nanni (Malayalam), Dhanyavaad (Hindi), Thanks (English), Dhonyabaad (Bangla), Gracias (Spanish), Grazie (Italian), Danke Schon (Deutsche), Merci (French), Obrigado (Portuguese), Shukraan (Arabic), Shukriya (Urdu), Aw-koon (Khmer), Kawp Jai Lhai Lhai (Laotian), Kob Kun Krab (Thai) and Asante (Kiswahili).

Hemantha Kumar Pamarthy

Chennai, India


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Dear Hemantha:

    Thank you for your offering number 16. The simplicity, humility and gentle,
    effortless humour: all these are making your writing better and more readable.
    Most important, it pulls at the strings of one’s heart.

    Compliments and best wishes from Mrs. Gandhi and me.

    Keep going, Kalaam ka Kamaal.

    Ramesh Gandhi

    1. Jaisa hamesha ki tarha, bus dhua aapki saab! :-) Bahut shukrguzaar hun! :-)

  3. Nice one. I am glad to know about it. Check out direct Mumbai to Chennai flights also.

    1. Ms. Dimpy Roy,

      Thank you for your time and thoughts. I am at a loss to note how I missed your comment as I always took pride in responding immediately but then this response is almost a year hence.

      My sincere apologies and heartfelt thanks!

      Best wishes

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    1. Dear Mr. Davis Morkel,

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