Delhi Stories and Tips

Indira Gandhi Airport, into The Heart of Darkness

Delhi airport international departures-3/08 Photo, Delhi, India

If you've never before flown through a third-world airport and the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi is the first, it could well be your baptism of fire. Though there are signs plastered all over the facility stating that airport officials are working hard to prepare the facility for the 2010 Commonwealth Games (Delhi), heaven help the athletes and attendees if the local bureaucrats don't make good on this pledge.

Truthfully, the number of passengers passing through this airport have skyrocketed over the past past few years and numerous improvements are obviously being made to it. However, if our experiences flying in and out of there in early 2008 are any measure, things still have a long way to go in terms of both facilities and organization.

As we were coming in from the UK, our flight terminated at Terminal II where international airlines discharge passengers. (The airport’s web site says 35 different airlines fly into Gandhi Airport from major cities across the world.) Passport control was slow for non-Indian nationals like us but not ungodly. Within about 30 minutes, we were on our way to pick up luggage.

Here’s where we got our first taste of the problems I’m told one often tends to encounter at the Delhi airport these days. Though we’d flown first class on British Air (BA), after more than an hour, our bags still had not arrived. Unfortunately, we were unable to find any airport personnel who could give us information on where to go and what to do in the situation.

Finally, after almost two hours had past (by then it was about 1:30 a.m.), we gave up and began walking out of the terminal without our checked luggage. Since landing, our Indian travel agent, who was waiting outside to take us to our hotel, had been anxiously texting me about our bags situation but because of airport security rules, he was unable to enter the terminal to try to assist us. Lo and behold, as we prepared to exit through the turnstile, we practically tripped over our suitcases, which had been unceremoniously dumped here!

Before leaving London, a BA agent had told us that first class passengers’ bags would be the first ones taken off our flight. This may indeed have happened but all I know is that only by sheer luck did we find both suitcases in an unmarked corner of the baggage area. (I did notice Cathay Pacific had an area for first class bags marked off by stanchions and a large sign). We then exited the terminal and our wonderful travel agent from CC India quickly whisked us to our hotel where we promptly collapsed into bed.

Almost three weeks later, after touring across India, we again had to enter The Heart of Darkness to make our way back home. When our faithful travel agent told us we would need to get to the airport a *minimum* of four hours before departure to catch our Heathrow flight, I knew this was going to be a rough night (1:25 a.m. departure). However, it was only upon arriving back at the airport that I began to understand just how rough.

First off, there was such a massive traffic jam and huge crowds (probably 400 people or so) massed in front of the international departures terminal (don’t ask me why--most of them didn’t appear to be flying out that night) that it took us at least a half hour to merely fight our way to one of only two airport entrances that were open. Once we got to the door, at least three members of the Indian military each had to examine our passports and tickets before we were allowed to enter.

Though our travel agent could not accompany us into the terminal because he was not holding a ticket (airport security rules again), he had hired a credentialed porter to assist us (thank God) with our bags. After the three of us elbowed our way through the incredible mobs found inside too, we got in line to have our luggage inspected and sealed by security. Fortunately, there was a BA First Class passenger rep stationed here and she helped us clear this hurdle within about 20 minutes. After pushing us through the crowds to the preferred passenger ticket counter where we got our boarding passes, she then escorted us to the passport control line.

Now the real fun began. Several hundred very unhappy-looking passengers taking international flights that night were queued up here, snaking around countless ropes and stanchions. The line was so long that it looked like Disney World during the Christmas holidays (shudder). Though we certainly didn’t want to stand here any longer than necessary (the terminal was stifling hot though it was only March and air-conditioned), when the BA agent broke line and pushed us into the gap (she said this was a first class flyer privilege), we almost got our lights punched out by angry passengers who had obviously been behind us for some time.

After my husband dissuaded me from getting into it with a particularly incensed elderly American man directly to my rear (I'd worked very hard to accrue enough frequent flyer miles for us to travel first between the U.S. and India), we proceeded to wait here. As time passed, it became obvious passport control was so backed up that many passengers were in danger of missing flights. Agents then began moving up and down the line and calling out specific flight numbers so people on these flights could be moved ahead. However, because of the terrible din in the terminal and the agents’ soft Indian voices (don’t ask me why they weren’t using mikes), many folks ended up missing their flights anyway.

After (count them) two and a half hours in line, we finally made it up to passport control. Thankfully, our flight was running late so we went to a First Class lounge to wait until our flight was called. The lounge was no great shakes but at least the ladies room there was an improvement over the one in the departure terminal that I’d had to use while in the endless passport line. It didn’t look so bad but smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned since the airport opened back in the '70s.

When we finally got on our BA flight, both of us collapsed like dead bugs. We were however intensely grateful that at least we were in First Class. Our deepest sympathy goes out to all the poor passengers flying in coach and even business class who not only had to wait in the passport control line much longer than we did but were not able to fly to Heathrow in First Class comfort

In terms of experience and a basis for comparison, I might add that my husband's been flying internationally since he was six, traversing Europe, North Africa, and southern Africa. I've been flying domestically since the age of four and over the past decade, we've both flown through Europe and African airports at least 35 times. Even today when flying almost anywhere has become an endurance sport, we feel that the conditions at the Delhi aiport were the most unpleasant either of us has ever before experienced.

If you must connect through this airport for international flights, I would recommend the following (in no particular order) to help make this experience as easy as possible under the circumstances:

(1) Unless you really tend to be cold, dress lightly and wear very comfortable shoes;

(2) Carry a couple of full bottles of mineral water with you;

(3) If you're entering the terminal, try to grab a porter (blue vests) on your way into the maelstrom;

(4) Try to fly business or first class, if at all possible or at least pay to use the Gandhi Airport's first class lounge;

(5) And finally, you might try greasing a few palms if you really hit a brick wall in terms of trying to move through the various lines. We did not do this but I just read a blog in which an Australian passenger flying out of Delhi (April 08) said he saw an Indian man give a soldier a few hundred rupees and next thing you know, this gentleman was moved to the very front of the passport control line.

While my husband and I were *completely* fascinated and charmed with India and her people (this was our first trip to the subcontinent), I must say that the dreadful conditions at the Indira Gandhi Airport, particularly on departure, left a bad taste in both our mouths.

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