(Welcoming Indian Airlines back to Kathmandu)
Our IA flight from Calcutta to Kathmandu was due to leave early morning. The dawn was soft, a gentle humid air wafting across the city. At the airport, the check-in queue was no longer than usual. Equally routine, the flight was delayed, allowing time to investigate the limited scenery of Dum Dum airport. The departure time shifted to 11:00 a.m. and then to noon, and then on to some indeterminate hour. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, when the flight was called circa 13:00. We slid smoothly past the security guards and, being somewhat experienced travellers, managed to find a seat on the first bus out to the Airbus 320.
We made our way across the tarmac to an airplane, but the flight crew was clearly surprised to see us. There was none of the usual pre-departure bustle, and mechanics and staff eyed the bus suspiciously. Our doors remained closed. Then the Airbus commander deigned to come down and shout through the glass, “We’re not going to Kathmandu!” A five-minute Hindi-English-Bengali debate ensued between the captain, the bus driver and an increasingly irate group of self-confident been-there-done-that Indian businessmen passengers. Nepalis and some Americans, who made up the rest of the bus, watched the drama unfold.
No amount of discussion would make a plane which was not ready to fly, fly. So we headed back to the terminal, where the airline officials asked us back inside, but the bus driver perked up with some unexpected counsel: “I suggest you stay put. If we go back in, who knows when you will come out again. Stay in the bus.” So we stayed seated and watched the debate escalate between the airline staff and the businessmen.
At about this time, a stream of passengers was loading onto buses for an IA flight out to Dhaka. A large number of our Kathmandu-bound businessmen picked up their Samsonite briefcases and joined that stream. The Dhaka-bound Airbus 310 was parked nearby, and we began to understand what this was about. Our businessmen walked away from the line of other passengers at the stairs and sat down at the front wheel of the A310, much as would village elders around the community banyan. Their Samsonite briefcases made a nice ring around the seated circle. Things were getting interesting.
Our bus was super-heated in the mid-afternoon sun, so the guards let us out. We wandered over to the group around the landing gear, watching and sipping the drinks we’d brought along. My son and wife found shade under the fuselage. The only thing missing was the peanut sellers. Our flight would go when it went, no point in allowing the blood pressure to rise with the ambient temperature.
By now, there were about 40 businessmen seated on the tarmac. They would allow the Dhaka plane to depart only when another plane had been found for the Kathmandu passengers. This was leverage. I had never seen a plane, or its wheel, gheraoed before. But this is Calcutta, where there is the tradition to direct action Perhaps things would move!
The Dhaka plane was ready to go, doors closed ana ramp pulled away. With a whir its engines turned briefly, and then shut down. The captain opened the cockpit window and stretched his neck out and studied the terrain below. No movement from the businessmen, who looked up defiantly. The doors of the Dhaka plane were reopened. Stalemate.
Suddenly, a parallel development. An aircraft had apparently been found to go to Kathmandu. Those of us not engaged in tarmac dharna jumped back on the bus and rumbled out to the fresh airplane, not the one we’d been taken to before. Up the ramp, into the seats. Watching from the window, we could see the captain of the Dhaka plane waving plaintively at the assembly underneath. His gestures were clear—you’ve got your plane, now will you let us fly to Dhaka! The knot of businessmen stood up from their position around the front wheel and swaggered across the tarmac, heroes who had bested the largest airlines of the Subcontinent. The flight to Kathmandu was uneventful.