1. Travel woes returning from the USA

“This blog describes my travel woes while returning from USA to India in first week of January 2022. Purpose of writing this blog was to let people know that trouble and system failures can take place in any part of the world and not only in India!”-Dr. Prabhat Ranjan, Vice Chancellor, DY Patil Internationl University, Akurdi, Pune.

I was in the USA to spend time with my daughter, Juhi, in California in December 2021. As my grandson’s birthday falls in 3rd week of Nov, I normally plan to be there during Nov-Dec time.  Towards the end of December, we spent a week traveling through death valley in California/Nevada area.

I had booked my return trip on Jan 3, 2022 taking a direct United Airlines flight from San Francisco(SFO) to Delhi. As per Covid protocol, we needed to get an RT-PCR test done within 72 hours of departure. The earliest day for testing was Jan 1 and we tried to book a testing slot a day earlier but we were not finding it easily by searching through various possibilities. I woke up early morning of Jan 1 to try doing more search but there was nothing available in either free or by paying $100-$150 per test. There were some that had mentioned walking in and trying but nothing was very clear. I raised an alarm about the difficulty in finding a testing slot. My Son in law, Sanchit, wakes up early morning around 5:30 AM or so. He tried to collect information from his circle too and only possibility of getting a Rapid PCR test done by paying $300 came up – with results available in 2-3 hours.

We went around in a Car in the morning to explore a few places to see if they could do the test – but none was testing on Jan 1 and 2. Finally, we booked a slot for testing at 1:30 PM by paying $300(about Rs 22,500) at a location about 40-50 minutes drive. We had early lunch and drove to the testing site and reached about 15 minutes before our time slot started. After reaching there, we were told that the appointment slot has no meaning and we need to get into a queue where already 100 cars were waiting. It was a big open parking area of a shopping complex and we had no option but to get to the back of the serpentine queue of vehicles. I was carefully watching the movement of cars and it was on average 2-3 minutes per car – telling us that we may get tested in about 4-5 hours time! We had no choice except to wait. If there was a single driver in a car, they could not even step out of Car to go to the washroom etc.
Finally, after waiting for about 4-5 hours, our turn came at 6 PM. We were feeling happy that at least we got our chance and they have not shut down testing as it was late. However, that excitement was short-lived as we were told that they have run out of the test-kits for which we had already paid $300. They told us to try another location the next morning. We told them about our booking at that particular location but they said – you can go to any location and wait for your turn. Time and location booking and paying advanced money etc had no meaning!

The next day morning we started early at 7:30 AM to drive about 40 minutes to reach Palo Alto testing center (Close to Stanford Univ) hoping to be early in the queue. Finally, we reached the testing location with 4-5 cars ahead of us. We were waiting in Car as per the instruction but saw a couple of people walking in and standing in a queue on the pavement. One lady came out of Car too and went to stand in the same queue. We also rushed to stand in queue as that lady said that she was in line earlier evening too and she found that people standing in queue were given preference. However, in a few minutes, someone came out of the testing center and asked us to go back in Car! Fortunately, after 20-30 minutes our turn came and our test sample was collected. We were relieved except that we needed to have a test report as per their timeline of 2-3 hours and hopefully it would be negative too. Fortunately, we got negative test reports in time and started planning for travel.

As our flight was at 7;15 PM from SFO, we reached well ahead of time by 4 PM or so. We checked in and cleared security etc and started waiting at the boarding gate. We also had to fill the form of Delhi airport through Air Suvidha portal by proving RT-PCR report as well as vaccination details along with flight details.

As we were waiting to board, we got an announcement that a Pilot has failed to clear Covid test and a standby pilot is going to come and is expected around 8:30 PM. As that deadline came close, we had another announcement that the next pilot has also failed to clear the test and they have no choice but to cancel this flight. Suddenly a big uncertainty faced us!

Through a video conference facility from our mobile, we connected to an airlines agent and told her if we can get an alternate flight to Delhi. She took about 15-20 minutes and booked us on another direct flight from Chicago to Delhi the next day evening.(in between her audio system failed to work and she tried to communicate by writing messages on paper to us and showing us on camera! Eventually, she called on my USA mobile number to communicate better!). To reach Chicago, we needed to fly in midnight and reach there in the early morning and wait a whole day to get the evening flight. We rushed to collect our checked-in bag so that we can move to the boarding gate for Chicago flight. My wife got her suitcase but I kept waiting for mine. I kept going around the conveyor belt in case the suitcase was mixed among many that had been taken off the belt and kept by side. After an hour or so, belt had no further movements. Some one said that all the baggage from our flight has been unloaded and now new flights bags would be put on the belt. On the display, there was a new flight number showing too with no way to know if my bag has come and I am not able to find it or if the bag has got misplaced from a plane that never took off. Then somehow we got to know that we needed to wait for more time as 50% of bags from the flight are still unloaded and it would be mixed among new flights. We were getting anxious as we did not want to miss our flight to Chicago while waiting to get the bag. Finally, after another 30 minutes or so, I got my bag.

We had been asked to get into the ticketing line and meet a human agent to do check-in formality as the kiosk would not be able to do the check-in. So we got into another line and finally check-in after another wait of 30-40 minutes. In the meantime our boarding time for the Chicago flight was coming closer and we rushed through the airport terminal to locate the boarding gate mentioned on our boarding pass. We saw a number of people waiting in line to board a flight. I also got behind them. After 5-10 minutes my wife discovered that it was for a different flight and our gate has been changed to another one! We rushed through again to the new boarding gate, which was in a different section of gates. After reaching there, we found boarding had not started and we sat down. In the middle of all of this chaos, we had no time to have dinner and all airport facilities of food seemed closed. We were hoping that this flight takes off and does not suffer the same fate as that of the earlier flight. Finally, we boarded the Chicago flight and tried to get some sleep on the flight but it was not easy! We reached Chicago early morning around 7 AM.

The next day we waited the whole day at the airport as it was all snowing outside and even hotel booking etc was not easy since it was check-in/check-out time. We tried to find places at the airport which was a bit less crowded and kept shifting as needed. As we came close to the boarding time of 5 PM, we were told that the aircraft is still being cleaned and it would be delayed by 15-20 minutes. Finally, we boarded the flight with some delay and the aircraft started moving towards the runway. After some time pilot announced that they have a technical issue that needs to be checked by the maintenance team before they come to know about how serious is the issue. So aircraft returned back without taking off. After about an hour or so, we were told that Aircraft needs maintenance and cannot fly. They have arranged for a new aircraft and we should deboard the plane and wait for the next aircraft!!!(Oh no! Not again!)

We came out and were asked to wait at a new boarding gate. We were eagerly looking to see when the Crew arrives and if the pilots are available etc. Finally around 9:15 PM with delay of 3 hours, the aircraft took off for Delhi!

With all the happenings, we were very apprehensive of any further trouble on the way but flight landed in Delhi around 10:15 PM of Jan 5 with delay of one day compared to our earlier plan. As I had missed my connecting flight to Pune, I rebooked the earliest connecting flight by Air India at 5 AM on the plane itself. At Delhi airport, things moved more smoothly and we cleared health check, immigration and got our luggage in about one hour. I had 3-4 hours to my flight to Pune and tried to give some relief to my back by lying on a lounge sofa.

Finally, I reached my home in Pune.

Purpose of writing this blog was to let people know that trouble and system failures can take place in any part of the world and not only in India!

This blog is written by Dr. Prabhat Ranjan, Vice Chancellor, DY Patil International University, Akurdi, Pune.

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