Delays and other New Year Resolutions

Dateline January 1, 2003. It is 11pm on the first night of this new year. While most folks are still sleeping off last night's hangovers, I am sitting at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, India. Road warriors the world over know this to be a hellhole of magnitude unseen since the Black Hole of Calcutta. The concourses are stained with beetlenut juice, smell of sweat and teem with masses of people heading out to destinations spread across the world, but yet united by the common favorable variable that they are anywhere but here.

Outside, the fog has set in like only Delhi fog can do. Visibility is down to 40 feet, and planes are going nowhere. If I could actually see through the solid wall of white facing me, I would write stories about long lines of widebodied jets with proud names like British Airways, Air India and Singapore Airlines patiently sitting in the darkness. My airline today is KLM, and my destination is Amsterdam. Our aircraft, a 25 year old Boeing 747 named Louis Blériot, is sandwiched between the pre-pubescent twin Airbus 340s of Air France and Austrian Airlines. Despite their employers being fierce competitors in the marketplace, today pilots from all three airlines huddle together over the latest meteorological report, hoping against hope for the slightest sign of a break in the weather.

The KLM Purser sits across from me on her jumpseat, helpless but trying her best to keep her full load of 285 passengers happy during this delay. She is a 32 year veteran of the airline business, having joined KLM back in the days when even our relatively aged aircraft was but a gleam in the eyes of a factory in Seattle. Every few minutes, a passenger wanders up from the depths of steerage and asks for an update. Her smile never falters as she repeats for the hundredth time that the next weather report is due on the half hour and we are awaiting instructions from Amsterdam. Some folks nod dejectedly and head back to their seats. Others try to crack a corny joke to hide their anxiety. Yet others lash out and tell her what a crappy airline she works for. The only constant is her smile.

Our pilot paces worriedly on the jetway, a tall dignified man with a flamboyant moustache that would be out of place on anyone other than an imposing figure like himself. He knows that if this delay drags on longer than 4 hours, he must cancel the flight so that his crew can be sufficiently rested to fly. His wife and kids are waiting for him back in Holland, family that he hasn't yet had a chance to greet in the new year.

Next to me is a businessman from Chile. He already has a very long day planned, with transit through Amsterdam, Sao Paulo and Santiago before he gets home. The longer the delay goes on, the more chance he will miss his connecting flights and wind up stuck on the wrong continent. He too is helpless, and drowns his sorrows in another glass of champagne, hoping against hope that he will have some good news to celebrate soon.

The local catering manager is chewing his nails in the galley. If the flight can't go tonight, then he is faced with the prospect of having 285 perfectly good meals go to waste. He thinks of the starving children, some living no more than a few hundred yards away from the airport and sighs at the cruel irony of the situation.

One of the ramp agents is also a little jumpy. He decided to quit smoking as his resolution for 2003, but the cravings are beginning to hit hard right about now. He jokes that its a good thing one isn't allowed to smoke on the tarmac, but his nervous laugh gives away that he would light up in an instant if the opportunity presented itself.

Everyone has a story at Delhi airport tonight. I stroll through the plane and talk to a man from Venezuela who has watched the political turmoil in his country from across the world, a British mathematician from Norwich who was in India for a conference, an Indian family with infant in tow heading back to Silicon Valley.

The wind picks up for a minute, blowing parts of the fog away. Behind us on the ramp, I see the silver outline of what appears to be an American Airlines 727, looking for all the world like a ghostly apparition in the fog. Ghostly indeed, considering that American Airlines has never flown to Delhi, and they no longer operate 727s. Another gust of wind clears more of the fog and I make out the word "Ariana" stencilled roughly on the fuselage. Even the national airline of the rebuilt Afghanistan is represented in Delhi tonight, albeit by a hand-me-down aircraft.

Then the fog is back with a vengeance. It is so bad that we can no longer see the wings from our position at the forward boarding door. The purser gives the order to start serving food to the passengers. We aren't going anywhere. The mood is pessimistic.

Finally, at 5am, the word filters down. Our flight is officially cancelled. The ground staff shepherd us off through immigration and customs and into waiting coaches. Someone has been busy and booked a block of 125 rooms for us at the Grand Hyatt. KLM is picking up the tab. The coaches set off into the fog, the driver navigating by instinct as much as by sight.

At 2pm, we are back at the airport. Louis Blériot is impatient to go home. We troop back on board. The fog has gone. There are new meals loaded. But the crew is still smiling. We take off at 430pm and fly West. Our metal tube soars through the skies like so many of its sister ships. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey... to us they are just dots on the moving map, but in each of those countries some airplane crazy child looks up in the sky and points excitedly at us as we fly high overhead.

8 hours later, we land at Schiphol. Louis Blériot has delivered us safely. The airplane bursts out into spontaneous applause. The doors open and there is almost a sadness as we disembark. Over the last 24 hours, the 285 of us have grown into a family. Business cards and email addresses are exchanged, promises to keep in touch. Most of it will never happen, but for now it helps us deal with the immediate sorrow of going out separate ways.

Every day, there are tens of thousands of commercial airline flights worldwide. Some last no more than 30 minutes, others may drag on for an entire day like our journey did. However, each passenger aboard each of these flights has their own tale to tell. Each flight in its turn facilitates dreams and creates memories.

May you have many dreams and memories in 2003. Happy travels.

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