The New Leaf

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“Ah GMG? When to come when to go. Nobody know.” At least the guy had a sense of humour. I’d woken up at a ridiculous hour to get to the airport on time. The flight was scheduled at 6:45 am. Reporting at 4:45. Putting my battered arm in a sling, I had set off in pitch darkness. There were no counters marked GMG at the airport, but asking around they pointed me to row 4.

The monitors showed KU, the code for Kuwait Airways, but there were other passengers waiting for the same flight, so it looked as if I was in the right place despite the empty counter. I was heading to Chennai to train Indian photojournalists in a workshop arranged by the World Association of Newspapers WAN-IFRA. I hadn’t fully recovered from my recent accident, but since the participants were from all over India, and they had also advertised my lecture widely, it would have been awkward for them to change dates. Sadek, my physiotherapist had given me a big list of don’ts. There was no reference to standing at empty airline counters. The Haiku response by the airport official didn’t really help.

Passengers waiting from early morning for non-existent GMG flight.

I did have a close connection and thought I would check. “No general enquiry counter. Not inside the airport,” explained another airport staff. “Try the GMG office on the 2nd floor.” The 2nd floor office was also closed. A hand written note in Bangla, gave the number of Mosaddek. A man answered, “I know nothing about the flight, please try the ground staff. Office in other terminal next to the Gulf office on 4th floor.”

Closed GMG office on 2nd floor. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The journey continued. A young Indian man, also a passenger, joined me. The GMG office along the way was closed. “There is one round the corner,” said a man in the corridor. “That flight’s been closed for 4-5 months” said Mr. Anwar when we finally found a GMG office that was open. Both he and his colleagues were very helpful. “We’ll endorse your ticket and make sure you get there,” they said. “We don’t get passengers. There were a few flights during Durga Puja, but otherwise we don’t operate this route. Please get your ticket and we’ll arrange something.” So with my dud arm in sling and my young friend in tow, off I went.

The other passengers were all waiting. The news that they had been booked on a flight that had not been operating for months was not what they were anticipating. I went back to the office with the ticket. This time there was another officer. More senior, more aggressive. “There is a system” he reminded me. “I need to run checks. If this is a genuine ticket, and if there are seats available, we will re-route you. It will take at least an hour for me to run the checks. Go to the counter. That’s where you’ll find out.”

Shahjalal Airport lights up as the early morning sunlight filters through.

Back at the counter there was still no sign of life. The sun was coming out and the airport was aglow with a golden light. A few Hajj passengers huddled in a corner deep in discussion. I made polite conversation with the other passengers. The waiting game continued.

Haji passengers at Shahjalal Airport.

Two porters arrived in the scene, and were immediately surrounded by the passengers, who by now had become increasingly agitated. They made frantic calls to the office. Then a ticketing officer came, he was followed by another, a woman, soon to be followed by our supervisor friend, Motahar Hossain. The supervisor’s less conciliatory stance upped the ante. Now things were getting heated. Watching me film the situation, he got even more agitated, but the woman, Muftania whispered something to the supervisor, who calmed down and assuring me that he was going to ‘fix it’, asked me to take a seat.

Planting myself on the red plastic chairs, I started texting Antony in Chennai to update him. “The Delhi GMG office never told us this” said Antony, “neither the online booking agent.” But by now things were getting heated. The station manager Raihan had apparently gone for a meeting. Dedicated these GMG guys, they have early meetings. Pity the dedication didn’t extend to caring after passengers. Muftania, tried to calm things down, trying to contain her senior colleague supervisor Motahar Hossain. Having waited for hours only to be told there was no flight, the passengers were angry and the supervisor wasn’t in a reconciliatory mood. Looked like trouble ahead. This was one of those moments, where the presence of a camera did help. Motahar Hossain calmed down. He later took me aside and tried to find me another ticket, and pleaded that the video didn’t make it to the media. He promised everyone a full refund.

It made none of us any wiser as to why the airline had been regularly selling tickets. “We get a few cases like this every day, “ Motahar said. “We did run some flights during Durga Puja, but then stopped again,” said Anwar, the friendly officer in the GMG office.

Of course I’d missed my connection to Chennai. There was no telling whether Biman would go on time. The Jet flight was too close. Eventually we settled for a flight on United. “I’m afraid we don’t have an arrangement with them, you’ll need to buy a new ticket,” said an apologetic supervisor. By now he was genuinely worried. He rang me before I boarded the flight, to check that things were OK, and to ensure the video stayed out of the media. “People would misunderstand,” he explained.

Back in Dhaka, I hear murmurings amongst GMG staff that the scheduling problems have been exacerbated by the owners having ‘taken away’ one of the planes for a family trip. This used to be the domain of our prime ministers, where Biman flights would be in disarray because the PM had whisked away a craft, leaving passengers in the lurch. I suppose the trait being taken up by others besides the prime minister will be seen as a form of democratisation!

The GMG website offers “At GMG Airlines, we are turning over a new leaf to deliver international standard service. That means on the dot time management, state of the art aircraft and service.” There is a saying in Bangla “noitar bus koitai chare?” What time does the 9 O’clock bus leave?” With the new leaf GMG, perhaps we need to ask, which month does the November flight leave?

Related links:

On Time Delays

Going Boldly Where No Man Has Gone Before

Funny Biman Announcement (Bangla)

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