September 26, 2010 5:05:59 pm
Cuisine of your choice,coloured ID tags by your profession; press gets a yellow tag. Welcome to the world of VVIP air travel.
If the seat number on your airline boarding card reads 59G,you are likely to be seated somewhere in the depths of the cattle class on a large aircraft like a Boeing 747. Except,of course,if you are flying Air India One (AI-1). Your correspondent discovered this to his pleasant surprise on September 9,when he accompanied President Pratibha Patil on a state visit to Laos and Cambodia as a member of the media entourage. 59G,as it turned out,was indeed located towards the rear of the aircraft,but in this reconfigured 747,it was an executive class seat (no flat beds,this isnt the brand new Air India).
The affable and usually calm Anil Suri,publicity officer (from the MEAs external publicity division) was at his wits end. The press apparently takes its freedom very seriously on such excursions,often to the point of anarchy. One journalist,who arrived at the wrong terminal,was lost. Suri needed the lost journalist to get to Air Force Station,Palam,the place of departure and arrival for Air India One. VVIP flights such as this one requires everyone,except,of course,the president and her senior bureaucratic entourage,to reach at least three hours before departure (D-3,they call it). The check-in,immigration and customs formalities are conducted outdoors under a makeshift shamiana adjoining the small VVIP lounge at the Air Force Station,Palam.
Needless to say,everyone was aboard well before the president arrived. The president,has a separate enclosure in the aircraft. Everyone on board is required to wear an ID card,and the colour of your tag reveals who you are. The members of the official delegation (consisting of top babus,joint secretaries and above) are given purple tags,and they sit right in the front of the aircraft in a first class configuration. The accompanying officials (junior babus and support staff) are tagged in pink. Of these,the junior babus (from the MEA and presidents office) sit in business class on the upper deck. The support staff,presidents cooks and butlers join the security team (tagged in red) from the Delhi police (not SPG) in the small economy class section behind the media. Journalists,incidentally,sport a prominent yellow.
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All the colours converge as the President comes out of her chambers to speak to the press. Broadcasters scramble to set up their cameras at the best vantage point. The presidents OSD,Archana Dutta,rushes to get things in order,testing and positioning the mikes for her boss. The chief of protocol,Sunil Lal,is decidedly unhappy with the sound system and lets those operating it know. The atmosphere is chaotic. Calm fortunately descends when the president makes her entry.
Once the official business is over,its time for single malt,scotch,vodka or winetake your pick. Everyone must,after all,be suitably happy on arrival. Lunch is as good as it gets on an airplane. There is something for everyone. The Air India crew caters to every request. This is after all a VVIP flight. It may also be because there are as many as 21 cabin crew serving just 96 passengers.
Air India graciously extends us the courtesy of a visit to the cockpit,a rarity in the post-9/11 airplane security obsessed world. We go in groups of two to meet Captain Rahul Tunara and his team. We take the two seats behind Tunara and his co-pilot Captain S Bhattacharya as they show us our route maps: the plane is on autopilot. The two reserve pilots,Captain Utsav Mukhopadhyay and Captain Sundaram,sportingly don the role of photographers on our request.
One wonders what the captains would have made of the haste with which passengers on board Air India One rose from their seats after landing.
Everyone,it seems,decided to violate the safety norm that requires everyone to be seated until the aircraft has come to a complete halt and the diplomatic norm that requires the president to disembark first. But then,on this special flight,everyone is a VVIP.
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