Sunday, August 3, 2008

The long and winding route

An often quoted line from Charles Dickens still seems appropriate, despite its clichéd nature.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

In describing our 34-hour odyssey here, it’s important to say that everyone has arrived safely, other than a few pairs of sunglasses and a Cleveland Browns hat. Before we arrived in that chaos that sometimes is called India, students saw striking contrasts between U.S. and India business models for the airline industry.

We embarked on this adventure on Friday, Aug. 1 in early morning darkness. The chartered bus from Bloomington set out for O’Hare on time at 6 a.m. A handful got on board at the Kelley School but the majority of students did so at Teter Quad. About two hours up the road, a group of Hoosiers, many wearing IU apparel, took over the Golden Arches in Purdue country. This will be the first of at least two McDonald’s on the itinerary.

Traffic the rest of the way was smooth, as we arrived at O’Hare with plenty of time to spare before our scheduled 12:55 p.m. departure.

The U.S. airline carrying us to New York quickly opened two counters for us to check in our large group, but it became immediately apparent that its personnel did not know what to do with us. We were told that not everyone in our group was confirmed all the way to Delhi. Half of us would need to take a direct New York to Delhi flight, while the other half of us would take a different flight that changed planes in Brussels. Obviously, that couldn’t happen.

“It’s only a receipt. It doesn’t mean that you’re confirmed,” the U.S. airline agent initially told our leader, Rosanna, a petite but strong willed person holding a thick stack of ticket receipts she’d received from the travel agent.

After several phone calls and conferences behind the counter, boarding passes started to flow. To some, boarding passes were provided only for the New York flight. For others, passes were provided for travel all the way to Delhi. All would be fine, we were told, when we arrived in Gotham.

After the now customary 40-mintute delay on the tarmac, we quickly made up most of the time an otherwise uneventful flight. Along with drinks, passengers were offered for $4 a choice of chips, trail mix or a small package of cheese and crackers. Upon arrival, all of us found the gate for our connecting flight, but no one was around to help us resolve the boarding pass issues. After all, the next flight wasn’t for at about four hours.

Moving forward to little more than an hour before takeoff, we encountered another challenge. When the airlines updated their IT infrastructure, they failed to include new data, including our flight number. This made it difficult when boarding passes had to be created for those arriving in New York without them. The more than 20 others with boarding passes generated in Chicago needed new boarding passes to be printed with the name of our new carrier on them.

Needless to say, the flight was delayed, but for about 30 excellent reasons.

From this point forward, all of our travels will be on the Indian carrier, Jet Airways, and its people calmly dealt with our dilemma in a calm and professional manner.

There are many reasons why Jet Airways has been named in surveys as one of the world’s best airlines and they immediately became apparent, starting with the cold, refreshing towels stewards started passing out. When the flight was delayed by the air traffic control, out came the drinking water.

Before takeoff.

Then there were the printed menus. We had three choices, an Indian meal featuring shrimp, a western meal of chicken in brown gravy and an Indian vegetarian meal. All included a fresh salad, prepared deserts and silverware – yes, silverware.

Not only is there in-flight entertainment, but there was a 64-page in-flight entertainment magazine, which included feature articles and interviews with actress Kate Hudson and director Rajit Kapoor and descriptions of close to 100 Hollywood and Bollywood movies, other international films and television shows available for viewing. There also were listings for more than a three dozen music CDs.

It was like having Blockbuster and iTunes stores at your seat.

In the morning, in the bathroom, laid out for anyone to use was a selection of toothbrushes, razors, mouthwash, cologne and deodorant. Just like home.

“I liked that they had a good selection of movies and really nice service,” Welton said, speaking for several of her fellow students.

Upon our arrival at New Delhi’s airport, students were welcomed with flowers placed around their neck. Even thought it was 2 p.m. when we arrived at the hotel, no one complained when its staff came around with fruit drinks to celebrate our arrival.

It’s been said that life is not about the destination, but the journey. That’s clearly true, but everyone is excited about what they’re going to see now that they’re here.

“A bunch of us talked about that last night and we really want to see the Taj Mahal. It’s an interesting monument. We’ve always seen it (on TV or in books), but it’s different to go there,” she said. “But we also want to see the daily life of people, the stuff you don’t get to see in the movies … we want to see how they interact with each other … to go to one of those markets that we saw in class.”

On Sunday, they’ll see Delhi first and its past and future.

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