On 3 August 2016, a Boeing 777-300 aircraft, registration A6-EMW, belonging to Emirates Airline, was operating a scheduled passenger flight, numbered EK521, and departed Trivandrum International Airport (VOTV), India at 0506am local time for Dubai International Airport (OMDB), the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At approximately 0837am local time, the aircraft impacted the runway during an attempted go-around at Dubai. There were a total of 300 people on-board the aircraft, comprising of 282 passengers, two flight crew members, and 16 cabin crew members. However, the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) was very sad to announce that one of the firefighters lost his life while saving the lives of the others.
Jassim Isa Al Balushi managed to rescue 300 lives, but in doing so, he lost his own. The brave firefighter sustained fatal injuries after helping put out the flames during rescue operations, the report said. His valiant efforts, however, were not in vain, as everyone on board escaped from the burning jet alive—including 282 fliers and 12 cabin staff. Once everyone evacuated, the aircraft exploded and burst into flames and Al Balushi was unfortunately caught in the blaze.
The initial report into the incident has shown the pilot had tried to abandon the landing after the main wheels of the Boeing 777-300 had already touched down.
When such accidents happen, it is always best to wait for the investigators to do their job and publish the report, rather than listen to so many so-called 'aviation experts' on the TV and the internet because most of them are just guessing and have little or no idea on what the truth of the matter is.
The official Preliminary Report has been published by the GCAA of the UAE. Click here to get it from their official website.
Over New Delhi IGI Airport
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
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.
India and Lakshadweep Islands
No Ordinary Romance
Sunrise over India
Sunrise over India...flying over Ahmedabad with a Qatar Airways Boeing 777 keeping us company in the Indian skies (we are at 41,000ft flying to HKG, and they were flying to Shanghai Pudong)....this is the closest I'm going to get to India for a long time (until I get my hands on a Visa!!): Photo Copyright Navjot SIngh
A Well-Deserved Cricket Match
No pavilion, no crowds, no proper cricket balls, clothing or equipment...but these migrant workers from India and Pakistan (two cricket mad nations) have plenty of happiness, high moral and support from each other. Every Friday after prayers (Friday is a weekend in the UAE), the streets are filled with Indians and Pakistani migrant workers (who make up the majority of the 90% of expats in the country) playing cricket or taking a rest away from their work. The whole of the Middle East has been literally built by people from these two nations...almost every building you see in the UAE, Qatar, Saudi, Oman, Iraq and Yemen has been built by an Indian or a Pakistani. Many get FIVE times the salary they would back home, and their living conditions have improved in recent years. Would be a great photo project to work on ..something titled "They made Dubai". Over the 2 days I stayed in Dubai and Sharjah, I heard a lot of first-hand stories from migrant workers...also got to speak to a Syrian migrant (a professional Chartered Accountant who lost every member of his family in the civil war...but now works as a taxi driver in Dubai...amazing survival story). Photo Copyright Navjot Singh
India through Chinese Eyes
On the 14th of September at the M on the Bund in Shanghai, prolific Chinese author and photojournalist Hong Mei, accompanied with her husband, photojournalist Tom Carter, gave an exciting talk about her debut travelogue, The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me (title translated from Chinese), to an audience of around 100 people. The talk was followed by a lively question and answer session.
Hong Mei became the first Chinese woman to backpack across the entire Indian subcontinent. Along with Tom, the couple deliberately selected off-the-beaten path regions and survived on a limited budget as they travelled for over a year across the length and breadth of India - a country that still comes across as a mysterious land for many Chinese people.
As a British man of Indian heritage who has never lived or worked in India, I found the talk to be very insightful and highly inspiring. I have not been to India since 1999, and I suppose because I've had a very English upbringing, so, sadly, I would be somewhat of a misfit in Indian society/culture if I ever go. Of course, it goes without saying that India is a beautiful country with a rich and vibrant history.
Having listened to the India that Hong Mei and Tom described, as well as seeing the photos they shared, it didn't seem much different from what I had experienced in 1999 (!). Things, such as for example, the lack of proper infrastructure and the lack of hygiene in public places in India, makes China look like a developed country. This type of external observation is exactly what the Indian government needs, because if they don't know what and how foreign guests feel about their country, then how can they make improvements?
I thought it was courageous and brave of the remarkable Hong Mei to have travelled to some of the remotest parts of India by herself—I'm sure that even some native Indians would not be tempted to do that!
A young European lady in the audience asked Hong Mei how she was received by the Indians, not only as a Chinese but also as a foreign woman. Her response did surprise a few in the audience. "Despite what we have seen and heard about India recently in the news, I actually felt very welcomed and relatively safe." said Hong Mei.
She went on: "At first contact and glance, most Indians thought that I was a Japanese or Korean, but when I told them that I was a Chinese, they were very friendly and welcoming. India is a country with stunning scenes." She revealed that in some parts of India, local people had never met a Chinese person before, so the people in those parts were very nice and welcoming.
The talk did touch on a key point: even though China’s new middle class are travelling abroad more than ever before, yet it is still uncommon for Chinese people to travel independently – either as backpackers or on a luxury tour. Chinese people usually travel in groups and try to see as many countries as possible and in as little time as possible. For someone to backpack around one country on their own for a long time is seldom heard of; though, it is not to say that this trend may pick up in the future.
Hong Mei's book, written in Chinese, is available here.
Brunch with Tom Carter
Having travelled extensively across ALL of China's 33 provinces...successfully succeeding in circumnavigating over 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) during a 2-year period, the first foreigner on record ever to do so, Tom Carter, a superlative photojournalist and an old China hand, is just the man to have beside you when you need a story to be covered.
Carter, originally from San Francisco, has remarkably not only captured the whole of China through his lens, but has travelled extensively throughout India for a year too - a country that is still very much a hardship environment for foreigners (almost medieval in places). Try surviving in India for a day without making frequent visits to the toilet - that's if you can find one (nearly 50% - I say again - nearly 50% of the country's population has NO access to a toilet). Hats off to Tom for doing what he did for over a year because India is hard work. I couldn't survive the 3 weeks that I was there for in 1998, the last time I visited the country, despite staying at one of the BEST hotels in New Delhi at that time.
We chatted about many things for a couple hours with topics ranging from big media exasperations to publishing to travel war stories. Tom's wife, who is also a photojournalist, is a native from Jiangsu Province. She has recently published a diary about her travels around the whole of India (i.e. every major State in the country) - a first for a Chinese woman.
In the meantime, you can check out Tom's book, CHINA: Portrait of a People by clicking the picture below!
Dawn breaks over the Gulf of Oman
Flying from China and onto the Arabian Sea (we came over from Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuhan, Chongqing, Kunming, Nepal, Karachi, and into the Arabian Sea), the Airbus A330 comes close to the end of it's journey into it's final destination Abu Dhabi. Sunrises are always spectacular. Oblivious of the significance for earthlings, the sun rises on just another day above the skies at 39,000 feet.
"What Happens On the Flight Deck...Stays on the Flight Deck".
No names, no pack drill. No aircraft types and nothing else. But really. An airline can preach Air Safety, Crew Resource Management and professionalism until the animals come home. But what 'professional' company allows both of its operating Pilots to sleep their way across the Bay of Bengal and half of a busy Indian airspace- failing to answer radio calls for almost an hour!? They apparently got a shock when the air hostess accidentally turned off the autopilot. Lucky the passengers didn't find out...and lucky that they eventually woke up.
Here is how the UK Telegraph reported it.
The trip to London was so short and snappy that it almost felt like a dream. Thankfully on the day of the flight from Heathrow we were gifted with a clear blue sky, and slight easterly winds, which allowed an excellent opportunity to take beautiful photos of London and beyond as the plane took off from runway 09R (heading towards Clacton-on-Sea, and then onwards towards Germany). I flew with Qatar Airways, so both the first flight (LHR-DOH, QR008), and the second flight (DOH-PVG, QR888) provided great opportunities to take some superb photos of the skyline of not just London but also Doha, Northern Thailand, Guiyang, Wuhan, Wuxi, Kunshan, and Suzhou (my home!!). And not to mention the magical sunrise that we were treated to somewhere over the Pakistan/India border.
From Dubai to Shanghai with EMIRATES
Usually I travel non-stop between the UK and Asia, which has prompted me to get to a stage in my life where I am fully aware of all the major air routes between Europe and the Greater China region. For example, the normal air route from London to mainland China and Hong Kong takes planes from London over to Brussels or Paris, then over Germany, Russia, and entering Mongolian airspace through Siberia, down towards Xi'an, and finally making its way towards the Chinese cities (Shanghai, Hong Kong or Guangzhou).
On my recent flight from London to China, I decided to fly with Emirates Airline. This effectively allowed me to blend in my press trip to Dubai and do an airline review for Emirates (my initial sponsors). For me, without a doubt, the most interesting part of the trip was taking the flight from Dubai to Shanghai- and what’s more, it happened to be a morning flight so the views provided along the way were just magical.
The Dubai to Shanghai route took us over the Dubai creek (flying towards the Arabian Gulf), and turning back towards Sharjah (which we went over), then making our way just below Afghanistan, then entering southern Pakistan (just around 100 miles west of Karachi), and heading north-east towards the Indo-Pakistan border somewhere in the Rajisthan Desert. Once the plane entered Indian air space, it made its way across the north of the country, passing Jaipur, Kanpur and then towards Varanasi before entering Bangladesh. As the plane went over Kanpur at around 39,000feet (FL390), we were welcomed by clear views of the Ganges river, and in the distance, a spectacular view of Mount Everest’s peak sticking out of the clouds. I could not resist taking the photo. It was just truly magical.
Equally stunning was the sunset in the horizon (eastern horizon) as the plane went over Kunming in Yunnan Province at around 38,000 feet and making its final hour approach into Shanghai. It was one of the most scenic flights I have taken ever, and truly memorable.
India and China: Neighbours, Global economic powerhouses...but are they really friends with each other?
It goes without saying that most Indian and Chinese people would not even explore the idea of integrating with each other’s cultures. It’s a historical thing, one which goes back to the early 19th century. Subhas Chandra Bose (1897-1945), an Indian nationalist leader, formed alliances with the Japanese during the second world war against the British and other oppressors of India, and even in Hong Kong, the Sikhs (who traditionally have been recruited into the Hong Kong Police or the armed forces) joined in with the Japanese forces. This alliance which the Indians (most of whom were Sikhs in Hong Kong and Shanghai at that time) made with the Japanese angered the local Cantonese people so much that since then there has always been a certain amount of sentiment between the Indian and Chinese communities in Hong Kong (and the rest of China for that matter)
One may question that these old thoughts may have been forgotten by the modern generation of Hong Kong people, however, according to Roger Houghton, a former Hong Kong police officer and British writer who has resided in the former British Colony for over 35 years says that these old sentiments get passed on from one generation to another. Even to the extent that sometimes Chinese elders discourage their grandchildren to make friends with Indian people. This may be a contributing factor, however, another factor is skin colour, and it is a well known fact that some Chinese people openly discriminate people of Indian origin (this is certainly true for some Cantonese people), and that includes every dark skinned person from the Middle East down to Burma, simply because these people have brown skin and smell of strong spices (of course, not everyone). There is reluctance amongst Hong Kong property owners to rent to Indians but that is more commercial than racial. Indian cuisine tends to penetrate the wallpaper and rugs and imbue the apartment with a spicy smell. When the Indian family leaves the residence, all these fittings have to be replaced. I believe it does not go any further than that. Nevertheless, Mr. Houghton explains that this attitude towards skin and smell were initially apparent in the first opium war. Also in Hong Kong, the sad fact is that the majority of Indians, Pakistanis and Nepalis do labor jobs, such as being doorman to hotels, or even the exceedingly annoying touting that goes around Tsim Sha Tsui doesn't really assist in improving their image much among Cantonese people.
On the whole things are gradually changing for good, however say, even five years ago it would have been common practice on a Hong Kong MTR train that if the only empty seat on the train were next to a seated Indian person, then no Chinese person would dare sit on that seat, no matter how tired they may be. It’s an extreme example, but one that is based on facts (and from what I have seen with my own eyes). India and China were also at a brief war in 1962, and one of my late grandfathers’, who was a Commander in the Indian Army, fought against the Chinese in that war. I doubt history will repeat itself for both China and India cannot afford to make enemies with anyone in the current global economic and political climate. I still treasure a black & white photo of him standing along side a Chinese Army Captain on the Ladakh border station in the snowy terrain holding the Indian flag; likewise his counterpart is holding the Chinese flag. I am not sure what his thoughts would be now, if he knew that his grandson is actually encouraging foreigners to visit China for business and tourism! Indeed India and China, who share the world’s largest border (from Bhutan to the northern part of Kashmir), have been scratching each other’s backs for centuries over the border dispute. I remember my late grandfather used to tell me that since times in memorial, India has always been a close friend with Japan and Russia. I realized this as I grew up. But we must all accept that times are changing. Since 2005, India and China have held a number of joint Navy, Air Force and Army military exercises to boost friendship.
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