To The Minister of Civil Aviation
I, Manoj Varughese, am a citizen of the Republic of India, presently residing in Shanghai, China. May I bring to your kind attention an unforgettable journey with Air India
. I refer to our journey from New Delhi to Shanghai by Air India
flight AI 348 on the 6th of April 2008. We arrived in Shanghai 25 hours after scheduled time—after going through severe physical and emotional stress. Permit me to narrate our harrowing experience.
We took off from New Delhi by AI 348 at 11:20am on Sunday, 6th April 2008. There were 69 passengers in the flight with Capt. Vijay Bhaskar as the main pilot with eight other crew members (78 people in all). About 6 pm, the aircraft was nearing Shanghai before the scheduled arrival time. I was having a chat with the flight crew at the rear end of the flight. From one of the flight attendant, I learned that we were not getting clearance from Shanghai ATC to land at Shanghai Pudong airport, due to poor visibility caused by low clouds and fog. After a few minutes an announcement was made about the same and we were told that we are landing at Nanjing Airport which is 300km North West of Shanghai.
After we had landed, we waited in the plane for a long time. Even after 45 minutes, we had no clue as to what was happening. Then the captain announced that there was no clearance from Shanghai yet. He also said that he had difficulty in communicating with the officials in Nanjing Airport.
I am student
of Chinese language. Yet, I am not fluent in Chinese. A Chine girl who boarded from Delhi was seated next to us. She could follow English. Together we offered our help to the flight crew. After an attendant informed the Captain about us, he sent for us. She with her broken English and I with my broken Chinese managed to communicate with the Nanjing airport authorities. By the time we got the first assistance from the Nanjing authorities to get external power, a ladder, and a technician from the airport, almost 2 hours had lapsed. Captain Bhaskar told me that the aircraft was running all that while on auxiliary power supply which could have run out if no immediate external power supply was brought in. If we had run out of power, we would have been in serious trouble.
In the mean time, the Captain tried to contact Shanghai airport and Air India
officials. Unfortunately, there was no good communication system in place. I offered my wife’s and my local (Shanghai) cell phones to the flight crew so that they could communicate with the officials in Shanghai.
Even after making contact with the Nanjing authorities and even after technicians, ATC personnel, and customs officials came to the aircraft, the passengers were neither taken out of the aircraft nor allowed to take off from the port. Shanghai ATC informed the Captain that conditions in Shanghai airport would be better after midnight and that we would be given clearance soon. We communicated this to the Nanjing airport personnel and got them to refuel the aircraft. We got ready for take off expecting a quick clearance. At about 12:15 am we were asked to get back to the seats and get ready for take off.
Our sense of relief was short lived. Thirty minutes after we sat down, we were informed that poor visibility conditions in Nanjing was preventing our journey! And this, after Shanghai had given us the clearance! Once again we were asked into the Captain’s cabin. We requested the airport authorities to bring in ladders so that passengers could disembark.
By the time we arrived at the immigration counter in Nanjing airport it was 2 am and we were all tired and frustrated with the long journey and the inconvenience. I was travelling with my wife and our 2 year old son. My wife was supposed to attend office the following morning after a week’s emergency leave. We were not provided supper because we were supposed to arrive in Shanghai at 8 pm. None o[censored]s were prepared for this emergency.
Adding to the trouble we were going through, we had to wait at the Nanjing airport baggage claim area for over 1 hour only to know that only a few passengers would get their baggage; the rest o[censored]s would have to wait till following day. After 3 am we were ferried to Hotel Ramada – about 75 minutes away from the airport – and we arrived there at 4:15 am. There we were asked to wait until further information came from the Air India
I was in constant touch with one of the officials at Shanghai (Mr. Jason) throughout. After 9:30 am we were asked to get ready by 12:30 pm to travel to Shanghai – a distance of 300 km by bus arranged by Air India
, Shanghai! After breakfast & lunch at the hotel (thankfully Air India
paid Hotel expenses!!!) we saw the first Air India
official at 12:30 pm in Ramada Hotel. (None of the crew including the Captain was available for any information after we arrived in hotel). We were then informed that the passengers who got their luggage could board the first bus and the rest of them could wait at the hotel until the luggage arrived. Finally, at about 2 pm, we boarded a bus to Shanghai and reached there by 7pm. I thank Almighty God for keeping our lives safe in that tedious journey from New Delhi to Shanghai. I also thank God for the little Chinese that I had learned in the past one and half years. It came to much use, not only to communicate at the airport in Nanjing, but also to help my Indian fellow passengers who had to go to different parts of the city by taxi/other transport.
I am not writing this mail to get any credit or recognition, but to bring to your notice the seriousness of the matter. I would like to bring to your notice the following:
1) I am still doubtful of the reason why we needed to divert to Nanjing from Shanghai airspace at about 6pm. I found out from some of my local friends that the evening was a very pleasant one and there was no sign of fog at that time or even later.
2) It needs to be ascertained whether the Shanghai ATC allowed any other flight to land in Shanghai Pudong Airport between 7pm and 12:30am.
3) If Shanghai Pudong Airport had less visibility, the next option could have been Hongqiao (International) airport which is on the western side of the Shanghai city (40 km away). Why were we sent to Nanjing?
4) During my travel to India a week ago from Shanghai, I had found out that Air India
flights start from the newly built Terminal 2 at Shanghai Pudong Airport, where the systems were not yet in place. For example, I was asked to do security check of my check-in luggage five times—even after I allowed the officials to open and check my baggage. When I asked them for the reasons they informed me that their computer systems & clearance were ‘not functioning properly’. This happened with a few other passengers on that same day.
5) I doubt whether there was a similar reason for not granting us the permission to land since we were of course making it to the newly built Terminal 2. No doubt, Indian flights are less preferred in places like Shanghai even though they offer cheaper rates. There could be various reasons such as regular delays, old aircrafts, poor service, less hospitable aircrew etc. (I myself had complained to the Managing Director of Air India
regarding an experience I had on an Air India
flight during my travel to Mumbai last week.)
6) Problems with communication (language related) at Nanjing put us in trouble for over 2 hours at the beginning until I and another passenger offered help. If we had not volunteered, the safety of passengers and the aircraft could have been jeopardized. We would have been left without electric power and fuel. Passengers who are called for assistance could pose a security threat. Air India
could have provided at least one crew with minimum Chinese knowledge to avoid such embarrassing situation.
7) We couldn’t take off at 12 am (after the first incidents) since the Nanjing airport couldn’t clear us (again due to communication problems) even after Shanghai had given us permission to land after 12:30 am. Later, when the fog had settled in after 12:30 am, the take off became literally impossible. This situation could have been certainly avoided had there been someone to communicate with the officials in Chinese. (I do not overlook Nanjing Airport’s inability to provide us a person
who could communicate in English!)
8) Co-ordination from Shanghai and Nanjing was very poor. There was much delay in getting the baggage of the passengers. Other than the bits and pieces of information I was gathering from one of the Shanghai officials, there was no one to give us right information regarding when and where we were headed to after we had disembarked.
9) After all these happened, Air India
took no serious effort to carry the passengers from Nanjing to Shanghai (at least by early morning) which had resulted in loosing our 1 day in offices, rescheduling/canceling official meetings, postponing/ canceling tickets for further journeys. Needless to mention the emotional & physical stress we had to go through for over 24 hours. I personally had struggled much until I arrived home with my wife and 2 year old kid, after staying awake throughout the night.
10) I would request you to kindly order an official inquiry to ascertain what went wrong. Please take corrective measures to avoid further recurrence of such incidents.