Nine hours into the flight flying en-route from London Heathrow to Hong Kong, we came across some spectacular sights over Mongolia. Outside air temperature is -65 Celsius degrees. Not sure of the exact place, but it is around 150 miles west of the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
There are no simple answers to these questions. Becoming an airline pilot has never been easy in any time in history. Back in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s, many major airlines around the world were investing heavily in the recruitment and training of future airline pilots by providing fully sponsored cadet pilot schemes, where the airlines would provide financial support, and the only requirement from the student was to pass all the rigorous selection tests and be medically fit. Effectively, this job- which is no longer the glamorous job it used to be with airline pilots being referred to as "glamorous bus drivers" - is very tough to get and equally tough to stay in.
However, since the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, and the global economic crisis, the vast majority of airline companies have cut back on providing a fully sponsored cadet pilot scheme. Instead, most would-be pilots have to either take a bank loan, or invest at least £120,000 to gain the frozen Airline Transport Pilot's License (ATPL) with around 200 hours, after which there is NO guarantee of a job.
Back in the 80s and 90s, all you had to do was get your frozen ATPL, and then the airline would provide the extra type-rating and training for you to get you to become a first-officer on your chosen aircraft type. Simply put, to become an airline pilot these days requires a huge financial investment, and without a guaranteed job at the end of it. That's assuming you pass the medical exams, and all the other theory and practical exams first time around (some of the best airlines require at least 90% in all exams), and if you don't pass them then that can go against you). One of my mates has just started studying for his flying at the age of 28 (which is fine as he will be around 31/32 by the time he qualifies for his first job), and another mate has started flying for the first time at the age of 45 (!).
Being 36 now, I personally would not do it, simply because of the huge amount of commitment, personal sacrifices and risks (both financially and personally) one has to take. If you are in a relationship or married with kids, then it is even more of a challenge. Some do manage it. A friend who was a doctor did a career change at the age of 39- she got the ATPL licence at the age of 41, and started working for Wizz (Hungarian airline) at the age of 43 after forking out around £150,000 of her money without a loan to get where she wanted to be.
1. First and foremost, pass your medical (must have an ATPL Class 1 medical) and pass all your 14 theory exams
2. Have at least a budget of around £120,000 to cover the 18 months course (including accommodation, exam fees, food and lifestyle costs. If you have to re-take the exams or if you take a modular course then the costs can be higher). It is probably cheaper in the US, Canada and Australia
3. In the UK, Oxford Aviation Academy and CTC Aviation are the best schools (highly respected and acclaimed by many global airlines)
4. Don’t do it just becase of the money- because flying is not the same as it used to be back in the 1970s/80s. You’ll be flying many more hours and for less pay for many years.
One of my mates has spent at least £180,000 over the course of four years to get his hours and type rating himself, and now works as a Second Officer for Cathay Pacific Airways- and with no home and no family at the age of 35. The bottom line is, only get into this career if you truly believe that flying is for you and nothing else should matter. Be prepared to sacrifice everything, and I mean everything and anything (plus you need support from your family, too).
If, however, you work for a government backed airline, such as a state-owned carrier (i.e. Air India, Air China etc.), then you may consider it a job for life- BUT if you fail your medical or your simulator checks then that is the end of your flying career.
Here is sound advice I got from one highly experienced airline Captain who has been flying for nearly 30 years:
"First things first - get your medical exam done before anything else. If you don’t have a Class 1 medical certificate, then there is no point carrying on. It is highly recommended that you get an ATPL-level medical as that is more detailed. Most people don’t, and it’s much stricter than CPL or PPL.
Secondly, to get the required 1,500 hours after gaining your flying license, that is a LOT and you will most likely need to spend your own money if an airline is not sponsoring you! You couldn’t do anywhere near that AND the ATPL subjects. I barely do 1,500 hours in TWO years on the Airbus A330 (Duty times are limiting on back of clock operations).
If you started at 34, for example, I would recommend doing ALL the theory exams before wasting more than 50 hours flying…too many people make the mistake and it drags out for years.
18 months full-time at, say, Oxford Aviation Academy or CTC (the BEST you can get) would get you a frozen ATPL licence and not even 200 hours I think.
Then you have to get hours to build up to 1,500 hours. Who is going to hire you versus a 23-year-old who they can bond to give years of service in exchange for a cadet-ship? So you really have too suss out the market, and KNOW before you start, where you are going to get the hours from, who will hire you and what their requirements are.
I would personally think that 34 is too late to start - I started at 26 and it was a stretch…but I think you WOULD get a job in the industry if you wanted it.
The retirements are coming thick and fast - particularly in the USA - and Boeing and Airbus are selling so many planes these days, especially in India, China, SE Asia, Middle East and Africa.
But do you want it?
The money is a third of what it was when I started - but you still have to pay at least US$120K to get into it.
The conditions are woeful and levels of safety have declined massively.
Given my life again, (at 26 had three companies, at 27 had a house etc., I sold everything to pay for the flying licence), I would spend my efforts making money and buy a Learjet or Citation to fly myself around in, and ONLY fly where I wanted to go, and in good weather.
You can’t imagine the stress/tiredness/ageing that occurs when you are flying into crap places, in crap weather in the middle of the night when you DON’T want to be there. It’s not healthy. The monsoon and Calicut -keeps me awake at night.
I am flying for the best airline in the world, with the best equipment in the world…and the rosters are the worst I have had in 29 years of flying and I can’t see myself doing it more than another 3 years.
Having said that, you could have an entire career flying turbo props and have a ball…given the right airline and location.
I haven’t talked about the SIMs (simulator exams and checks) every half-year and licence renewals…only having a job for six months at a time. Knowing that the next time you walk out of a simulator, you could be unemployed and out of the industry for good (same each time you do the medical exam every year). You can’t ever relax - you can’t have a holiday for more than 34 days - or you lose your licence. Every three months you have to get back into the books and study.
The SIM-tests gets most people…some are incapacitated by it. The best airlines only allow you to fail once, after which you are either out to look for another airline to join or you go back to the books for another six months before taking the simulator exam again. Not easy. The physiological stress that comes with failing a simulator exam can be enough to put one off the career. Worth considering in advance. The same goes for the health checks. You fail a routine health check and that’s the end of your flying career.
Pilots below the age of 40 years are checked annually, whereas those above are checked six monthly. Medical standards and certification are stringent. Their eyes, ear, nose, throat, equilibrium, mental, neurological, cardiovascular and general medical conditions are checked by an aviation trained doctor. As long as a pilot is certified to be medically fit, he can continue to fly internationally up to the age of 65 years in the US, Australia and other ICAO member countries. This limit is not fixed worldwide, as the retirement age for Captains can vary from country to country.
In Germany and the U.K., pilots by law are required to retire at 55 years of age. If a pilot fails their medical check, then they can look for a ground based job. They can retrain and become good at some other type of work: aviation mechanic, computer scientist, engineer, law etc. Some of these fields will actually pay a much better salary than a pilot’s job. If you are not fit to fly, no amount of bargaining/rationalizing is going to fix that — you've got to accept it and just move on with a positive attitude. The root cause (psychological problems, in your example) is a red herring. You may have to change careers for many reasons: injury, family, health, etc.
SO, there is a lot to consider. Hope I have given you some food for thought.
There WAS a cadet-ship in British Airways in 1967-9 (I think)…and in 1968 in Australia anyone with a CPL got an airline seat - then the airlines filled-up with no jobs given until the late 1980s…but that was it.
They are running cadet-ships in India, Hong Kong, Qatar, Oman, Vietnam and U.A.E. for their locals now…and in Oz a few airlines are selling flying trying + bonding - but no cadet-ships- meaning that you have to fork out the case yourself. British Airways does a sponsored scheme but you have to provide £80,000 as a security bond first (which you will get back). I am not aware ANY good airlines did cadetships after the hiring boom of the late 1960s (they hired anyone worth a licence and 1,000 or so hours but nothing below that).
It always cost about US$120,000 to get a licence…mine cost less upfront cash and that was in the 80s - but took three years - so by the time you earn/pay tax/ and live, so amounts to much more than that.
The drama of getting from 200 hours to 1,000 hrs has ALWAYS been tough. Every pilot will give you the same story, each worse and more horrid than the next guy. It’s the industry’s way of weeding-out those who are less than focused enough to make it. The world is littered with 800 hour failure pilots who cannot get a job after gaining their license! So, make sure that you have a plan B in case something goes wrong.
Unless you are wealthy and have the cash in hand, most guys who take a loan take until they are in their 40s to pay it back. Which really stuffs up your family life. I started late, and was never been able to afford marriage and kids in my 30s. Now in my 50s, I am too late for all that.
But I made the decision when I started flying: Commodore (car)/Rolladoor (garage)/ Labrador (dog!) or flying.
And I chose flying. Since I joined jets in 1992, I was a First Officer- earning 65% of a real wage until I was 52. And these days the wages are getting lower and lower.
I will retire at 57, purely because I can’t handle the exhausting lifestyle. It’s much harder than when I was in my 30s. The airlines make us work much harder.
If my airline went part time, say a 75% roster I might stay, but I highly doubt they will.
I sat there watching Captains visibly age-from 60-65 they turn into old men!
But if flying is for you, you’d have known when you were six. Nothing would have stopped you getting there. It has changed markedly since I took it up. It’s a young man’s game - and - for most, safety is plummeting.
Did you know Singapore Airlines have fired ALL their expats? The week before Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crash at San Francisco, they did a go around after doing the exact same thing…with a Boeing 777 full of passengers. THAT- in the 90s - would be inconceivable."
Read this excellent article by BALPA
Below is a video of a veteran American pilot who gives the low down on the subject. Worth watching:
When it comes to writing books, it is always the original ideas that win, and this is one that most people have been waiting for someone to write about. This book is very well-researched, well-written, and thoroughly deserves to be read and reviewed by mainstream global media outlets. The author provides the readers with factual information and very useful messages on a subject that is crucial to those who take us safely from A to B. The author does this all with an entertaining and witty song throughout. It is a pleasure to read what he has written - so much more beautiful and interesting than anything else that you will find in any aviation related magazine.
The only problem here is that I, or anyone for that matter, sadly cannot reveal the identity of the author. Which is a shame, because when you read the amount of excruciating detail that he has gone into in laying out the crude fundamental reasons of why pilots and cabin-crew fail to get a good night sleep, only then you end up realising how fortunate those are that are reading this subject. I appreciate that the author provides interesting facts with a winsome sense of fun, and sometimes with silly-clever interludes, but on the whole there is a lot of pertinent information about a serious subject at hand.
It goes without saying that for a demanding job as being an airport pilot (and also cabin crew), getting the license and qualifying to get the job is only the first step in something that can be a rewarding career. However, the real challenge is to fight off the fatigue that comes with the job (it can make or break a career- and that’s one of the many reasons why you need a Class 1 Medical to be an airline pilot).
For most passengers, a single 12-hour flight can be enough to put off flying for a while- imagine doing that day-in day-out for the rest of your career. Pilots who fly internationally have to deal with jetlag and the weird times at which they land/take-off all the time, and they have to be fully mentally and physically fit for that. It is not easy by any means. Weird sleep patterns can have a disastrous effect on your body. In many cases, crew only have up to 48 hours of layover time before they turn-around and fly again. Low-cost and regional crew also have to deal with such challenges (though not with jetlag), but imagine starting at 3am and finishing at 1am the following day without a rest and aircraft delays, and then have to start again the following day- that’s the life of a low-cost airline pilot.
Many pilots and cabin-crew choose to find various ways to fight of their the pressures of the job - binge drinking (not everyone, of course), sleeping tablets, anti-migraine tablets, chain smoking etc. are all well-known habits that are practised in the industry (it is very difficult to get into and stay in the industry and very easy to get out of the industry). But how do you effectively end up enjoying a good night sleep on a layover? How do you manage to do that, especially if you are working for a not so well-known airline, where they stick the crew up in the cheapest hotel possible, complete with bed bugs and noisy neighbours?
Well, thankfully this book lifts the lid on a subject which everyone in the airline industry wonders about, but nobody has had the time to write about. I think every pilot, whether they are a trainee, experienced, a Top Gun… and even if they have flown Air Force One for the U.S. President, should get a copy of this book, grab a freshly brewed coffee (preferably not the one you get on planes), and cherish every word. In actual fact, this book would come handy to other insomniacs, especially doctors, nurses, night-time police helicopter pilots and so on.
The highly respected and experienced author works for a major airline (cannot give name) as an Airbus A380 Captain, and he has been all over the world and in all kinds of situations for the past 30 years – in other words, he’s seen and done it all from Dhaka to Guangzhou to Malta to Zanzibar and in other far flung places.
Click here to order this book from Amazon createspace for only $15.9
Click here for the book's website
Fond memories of Paris....with a beautiful photo I took from the sky in 2010...when Paris was the city of LOVE not WAR. Prayers and thoughts with ALL Parisiens.
Caught while landing on Heathrow's runway 27L....not easy to get a shot while coming into a windy touchdown at 145knots!
BA's Concorde, reg G-BOAB, first flew on 18 May 1976 from Bristol Filton. Her last flight was a positioning ride on 15 August 2000 as "Speedbird Concorde Bravo Papa 002" from New York JFK to London Heathrow after flying 22,296 hours. Ever since then she has sat quietly at Heathrow, admiring all the new boys and girls on 27L in front of her. Beautiful bird!
During busy period, when planes are waiting to land at London Heathrow Airport, they are usually placed by London Air Traffic Control to hold and circle around any one of four main points around London- Lambourne (North-East London), Ockham (South-West London), Bovingdon (North-West London), and Biggin Hill in South-East London. Aircraft are separated by a height of 1,000 feet. We circled around Biggin Hill for around four times on this occasion...providing me with spectacular views (like below)...and frustration for the other passengers who just wanted to go home!
Captured on the way to a short trip to Geneva. The mountain was the scene of two fatal air crashes; Air India Flight 245 in 1950 and Air India Flight 101 in 1966. Both planes were approaching Geneva airport and the pilots miscalculated their descent; 48 and 117 people, respectively, died. These days, planes try to avoid the airspace around the mountain as much as possible: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Special thanks to Oman Air.
New Delhi IGI Airport, as seen from 40,000 feet en-route from Kathmandu to Muscat @Oman Air. This is the closest I have got to India since my last trip in 1998! Usually I keep my eyes closed when the plane goes over India...but this time I couldn't resist taking a photo of New Delhi!: Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
A Malaysia Airlines B777-200 parked at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). Memories of the two Boeing 777-200 aircraft belonging to Malaysia Airlines that were involved in accidents in 2014 (MH17 and MH370) are still fresh in mind, and every time I see a Boeing 777 belonging to Malaysia Airlines, the events surrounding the unfortunate circumstances of both accidents immediately come to mind. Am I scared to fly with Malaysia Airlines because of those events? No, I am not, and neither should anyone else be afraid to fly with a fine airline as Malaysia Airlines. I firmly believe that those crew on flights MH17 and MH370 were fine people doing their job to take passengers safely in comfort from one place to another, but sadly due to unfortunate events that were out of their control, they perished. Millions of passengers fly around the world, and flying is still one of the safest ways to fly. Let us not forget that Malaysia Airlines is one of the best airlines in the world- it is one of the great legacy carriers. In 2008, I fondly remember having a conversation with Martin Barrow (former MAS Executive Director) in his London office where he invited me to try and experience flying Malaysia Airlines. "Navjot, try Malaysia Airlines and review them. Winner of the Best Cabin Crew awards for many years", said Mr. Barrow in 2008. Ever since that day, I have always wanted to fly with Malaysia Airlines, but could not do so. Thankfully, that day arrived in August (yes, in August, I have been busy all this time so did not have time to update my blog). I am proud to say I flew Malaysia Airlines from Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu on a Boeing 737-800 (I will write a full review later).
The very professional and friendly crew of Malaysia Airlines flight MH170 from Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu in August. All power to them and their colleagues for having the courage and professionalism to continue to doing such as wonderful job after their company suffered such tragic events in the past two years. They say that in the airline industry, an airline is finished if it suffers two or more accidents. However, I do believe Malaysia Airlines will once again be the Skytrax 5-star airline that it used to be. From my experience, their cabin crew and in-flight service is among the best and up there with the top airlines in the world (and for those who may be wondering - no, I am not being paid to write this.): Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
Kuala Lumpur means muddy confluence, perhaps because it gets it's fair share of rain. The 13th busiest in the world always seems to be empty, unlike JFK which at 19th busiest always appears to be more busy than it should be (or can handle). It's built about 50kms from the city, about an hour's ride by taxi, and is surrounded by forest because the former prime minsiter wanted to create the illusion that the airport is in the middle of the forest (which it is), and would pave way for other airports to be environmentally friendly - away from the city centre to reduce noise etc. The Kuala Lumpur Grand Prix track is located nearby.
Forests mean green, and green means hot...it gets very hot and humid here - almost into the 90 percent humidity as well as into the 40 degrees Celsius. During approach, planes have to contend with turbulence due to the localised hot air rising from the canopy (whcih we experienced on our way from Hong Kong).
Having spent five days at high-altitude (at 3,500 meters above sea level), I caught a slight cold and a runny nose. Usually the advice from doctors is that you shouldn't fly when you have a cold because your ears are more susceptible to be blocked. On a short-haul flight from Jiuzhaigou to Shenzhen (via Chongqing), my eardrums took some battering during decent and they just became totally blocked. I couldn't hear anything.
For the first leg of the flight, I felt pretty good at altitude, however when it was time to descend into Chongqing, I experienced the worst ear pain ever. I couldn't hear anything. My head felt as if it’s in a vase, and descending increased the pressure more. Why did this happen?
The key way to learn this is to know that a human head has holes in it. These holes include the eight major sinuses, which are paired in either cheek, the forehead, between the eyes, and a deeper pair far behind the eyes. Each cavity holds anywhere from a milliliter to four or five tablespoons of air. Inside our heads, each of our sinus cavities "communicates" with - has an opening to - the nose. This opening, however, is quite small and may be only one millimeter across. Under normal circumstances, this opening is large enough to let air travel freely between its sinus and the lining of the nose. As we gain altitude, the air pressure around us drops so, the pressure inside our sinuses is higher than the outside.
The sinuses don't expand like a balloon does because air flows through the communicating channel to the nose, thus equalizing the pressure. The reverse happens on descent. However, the big problem here is that if we have a cold or other upper respiratory infection, the mucous membranes that line the inside of all our airways, swell and become inflamed. When this happens, the tiny communicating channels can easily become blocked. Then, pressure in the sinuses may be great enough to force air out through a narrowed channel, taking bubbling bits of mucous with it. That causes the squeaking sound we hear as the pressure equalizes. This swelling and inflammation acts like a flapper valve. It lets air out, but it doesn't let air back in.
The pain was excruciating- it felt like the end of the world. To open the Eustachian tubes under normal circumstances, use the Valsalva maneuver. I did what you should do- that is to pinch my nose shut, close my mouth, and tried to exhale gently through my nose. It should have forced the pressure into both ears and I should have felt my eardrums pop. It sadly didn’t work.
The pressure differential - increasing ambient pressure causing low pressure in the sinuses - can be so great that the sinus lining literally can be ripped right off the bone.
For the eardrum to vibrate properly, air pressure on both sides has to be equal. The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the back of our throat.
As we gain altitude, air can spontaneously bubble out of the middle ear. The small muscle in the back of the throat acts like a flutter valve. During descent, the muscle must hold our Eustachian tubes open, which allows air to pass through them and equalize the pressure in our middle ears. If we can't do this, the outside pressure can push the eardrum inward enough that it might rupture. And, that’s exactly what happened to me. A ruptured eardrum will usually heal on its own in two to three weeks. But I didn’t have the luxury of waiting two or three weeks at the ground. My next flight was to Kuala Lumpur in two days and then after three days in Kuala Lumpur I was expected to fly to Kathmandu (again at high-altitude), and then after a week in Kathmandu, I had a 12-hour flight to London!
I decided to go and see the doctor in the Accident & Emergency department of the local expat hospital in Shenzhen, and have my ears checked out. The doctor used sound therapy to clear the ears- took less than 10 seconds and cost about US $20. Basically he pushed a tiny pipe into the eardrum and with a couple of ‘bleep’ sounds, the air was cleared. With antibiotics in hand for the next six days, the only piece of advice was: “Navjot, don’t fly for at least two weeks”. I had no choice it seems. Just hoped that it would not happen again!
Taking-off at night from Shenzhen on a clear day provides an opportunity to take some beautiful photos of the city. Departures towards the northern Chinese pass over Boa'an, Nanshan, before making a sharp 180 degrees turn left over Shenzhen Bay and back towards Longgang District - heading towards Dongguan and Guangzhou.
How do you end up missing three flights on one evening? Can it really happen? The simple answer to that is, yes it can, and it happened to me. So, if you suffer a similar unfortunate issue, you have my upmost support and sympathy.
In May this year, I was supposed to fly on Air India’s brand new Dreamliner Boeing 787 aircraft to promote their Business Class (and the aircraft itself). The flight was booked to go from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to New Delhi IGI Airport. From Delhi, I had a connecting flight to London with Oman Air (via a short stopover in Muscat). This was my first time to try out Air India, and the airline had specifically invited me. Since I have a British passport (Sadly, I am not Indian), so therefore I was to the understanding that I had to get a visa if I was to even transit through New Delhi, even if I had a connecting flight with a different airline. Not only I double checked, but in fact I triple checked with the senior management and even went to the board level at the airline to make sure whether I did or did not require a visa. The senior management, namely Air India’s China Managing Director at that time (whom I am not going to name in this article), told me that as a British citizen, I did not require visa if I was just transiting via New Delhi - even if my onwards journey was with a different airline.
Being the fact that she was the country Managing Director, I respected and trusted her words. In any case, I showed her the proof from the Indian Consulate General’s website, which at that time, clearly stated that British Citizens required a visa for India if they were transiting to catch another flight, even with a different airline. Effectively, I would have had to collect my luggage upon arrival at Delhi, leave the building and then check-in again for Oman Air. However, despite I showing her the request from the Indian Consulate General in Shanghai, the Air India Manager was adamant that I did not require a visa at all. Before the actual day of the flight, the Air India MD told me that the airline’s station manager would be at the check-in desk to personally greet me and take me through to the aircraft before boarding (this is normal security procedure for media every time I carry out an airline review).
Come the day of the flight, as you can imagine that I was super excited. It was a Friday evening, and my scheduled flight was at 10pm. I got to the dedicated Air India check-in counter at Shanghai Pudong Airport around two hours before departure. The first thing I noticed was that all the check-in staff were local Chinese and were wearing Chinese Eastern Airlines uniforms. Where were the Air India staff? Well, to my surprise, Air India have no native Indian check-in staff at the airport because of financial cuts, they have outsourced their check-in and ground handling to China Eastern Airlines. The airline’s duty manager (who was Indian), was nowhere to be seen either. Apparently, he was on the ground next to the aircraft and his mobile was switched off, when he should have been at the check-in counter as that’s the job of the duty-manager.
When I checked-in, I showed them my media documents, passport, flight ticket, and the necessary permission letters that I had got from the Air India management. The gentleman at the check-in counter initially gave me my boarding pass, but then he noticed that I had no transit visa for India, and therefore I was denied boarding. Both the check-in staff and I tried to get hold of the senior management at Air India, and the duty manager; however to my surprise and disappointment, nobody picked up the phone. After waiting for around a further 20 minutes, the check-in staff came back to me and told me something I did not want to hear: “The duty manager does not know who you are, and nobody briefed him that you will be on this flight. You need a transit visa for India, otherwise we cannot allow you on this flight” he said.
“Where is the duty manager? I want to talk to him” I said in my response.
The check-in staff member went on to say: “The duty manager is busy near the aircraft and he has checked all his emails, and documents, and he does not have any information about you or any other journalist to be on this flight. I’m sorry, sir, but I have no choice but to deny you boarding on this flight. Your baggage will be back with you shortly”
The sad part of all of this episode was that there was nobody who could help me - not from Air India or from China Eastern Airlines. The check-in staff were helpless. The blame goes directly on serious incompetence and lack of effective communication from the airline’s senior management and board members. I have never experienced anything like it with any other airline - ever, and trust me, I have reviewed many airlines, and all the experiences have been positive. This was not a good first for sure.
I have friends who are working as pilots and cabin crew for Air India, and they all do a great job. But the root cause of all the ills of any company come from the top to the bottom. The fact that the senior management of a national flag carrier of one of the largest democracies in the world can easily get away with this is a complete shambles. Surely an embarrassment as well. The fact that no one from the airline apologised is also a serious disappointed. It is just diabolical. I understand that such incidents can and do happen with other airlines. But when you are trying your best to help to improve and sell the brand image of an airline that is already suffering from financial problems and countless number of embarrassing incidents that have let the company down in the public limelight, it does no justice whatsoever for them to make mistakes like these. They simply cannot afford to do this. Does it let the image of the airline down? Yes, it does. Air India used to be one of the best airlines in the world when the Tata group owned in back in the 1960s/70s, and it was one of the first in the world to operate a jet aircraft. Those glory days are long gone. The airline’s brand mascot is a Maharajah, and their brand motto is “Your Palace in the Sky”. Well, I’m not sure whether it is still a palace in the sky or not because I’ve never tried their service, but they have definitely let the maharajah down. Either that or he’s cursed.
At this point it must have been around an 8.50pm, about an hour after I initially arrived to check in. Exceedingly frustrated, hot, humid, dejected and somewhat panicked, I collected my baggage and thought of plan B. The only thoughts I had in mind were that I had to make it to London no matter what. The sad thing was that not only did I miss the Air India flight, but in the process, I also missed the connecting Oman Air flight from Delhi to London.
It was nearly 9pm by now. My only hope was to purchase another flight. But, to make matters worse, most of the airline ticketing desks were closed, my laptop was operating on only around 2% battery (and the charger was in the baggage somewhere, which I didn’t have time to find), my mobile phone’s battery was low, too, and there was VPN available (Google, YouTube, Gmail, Hotmail are all blocked in China and so you need a VPN).
My only hope left was to run to the Business Centre (which closed at 9.30pm) and pray that I could catch one of the last remaining flights of the night to London - Aeroflot, Air France, Lufthansa, Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, Turkish all had flights going to London via their respective hubs. The Air India desks were at aisle G, and the Business Centre was at A, and being the large airport it is, Pudong Airport’s Terminal 2 departures all is HUGE to say the least…you can imagine a helpless chap with three pieces of baggage, laptop and cameras, running –sweat pouring all over – at breakneck speed from one part of the terminal to the other!
While making full use of the exceeding slow internet at the Business Centre, I used my Barclaycard Visa to purchase a one-way economy class ticket with an Etihad Airways flight the same evening for US$750. By the time I bought the ticket, it was 9.20pm and the Etihad flight check-in closed an hour before the flight at 10.30pm. Great! I would get home on time and enjoy a nice bubbly on the plane after all what I went through! What a relief…so I had thought!
When I checked-in to the Etihad Airways flight, to my shock the staff there could not find my ticket reference number. I was gobsmacked. Even with my passport and date of birth they could not locate any information on their computers. Even worse was that I couldn’t access the Gmail address which I gave when I booked the ticket (as pointed earlier that Gmail is blocked in China and I had no VPN either). In the heat of the moment, I forgot to take a note of the reference number. Therefore, I was denied boarding on the Etihad Airways flight, too. Utterly dejected, angry, dazed and just exhausted, I literally begged the Etihad Airways staff to look for the flight ticket reference, but at no avail.
For the next ten minutes, I just sat on the floor on the airport terminal, and pondered over plan C and tried to keep positive. The only option left now was to book into a hotel and book another flight early the following morning, as well as apply for the refunds from Oman Air and Etihad Airways. I had no choice but to spend more money and stay the night at the Shanghai Airport Hotel (located between Terminals 1 and 2…that cost me around US$70 for one night). When I got to the hotel, I finally manage to charge the batteries of all my devices, and was able to access the VPN to book another flight. When I accessed the Gmail account, I saw that I had indeed received an email from Etihad Airways confirming my flight ticket – it may have been too close to the flight for the system to send the data to the check-in counter.
I managed to purchase a one-way Virgin Atlantic flight for US$650. Altogether, I managed to lose over US$2,000 that night (two flight purchases, hotel for one night and the cost of my connecting missed flights with Oman Air). Imagine if I had a family with two kids, for example…no doubt it would have been a VERY expensive and exhausting evening (thanks to the blunders from Air India and Etihad Airways).
After this traumatic experience, I was even prepared to fly cargo if I had to. The following morning, I arrived at the airport with plenty of time in hand, grabbed a hot Starbucks cappuccino and was prepared for the worst. Thankfully, I managed to check-in without any issues and enjoy a lovely flight from seat 44 at the back of an ageing Airbus A340 belonging to Virgin Atlantic. Interestingly, our Virgin Atlantic flight arrived an hour before the Oman Air flight that I was due to arrive on originally. I hope I never get to experience anything like this again. As for flying with Air India? Well…this was supposed to be my first time and I hope that the next time I try to fly with them, I really feel as if I am in a palace in the sky! I can understand the mistake made by Etihad Airways as that is more than likely to be a technical error, but there is no excuse for Air India, where human errors from the senior management have resulted in a complete failure of communication.
Always nice to read your own article in an in-flight magazine! Came across my own words on a China Southern Airlines flight from Hangzhou to Qingdao recently -- 'nihao' magazine (click here to read more).
Located 37 kilometres (23 mi) south west of Dubai, the Al Maktoum International Airport opened on 27 June 2010. It costs about 120 Dirhams and takes around 30 minutes by taxi to get to from the city centre. The airport is relatively underused by only a handful of airlines. I flew out of it with Qatar Airways to Doha: Photo Copyright Navjot SIngh
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