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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.
Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

The case of the intact bags

The first thing you’ll notice about Incredible India are the incredible flight timings. Think 2am arrivals and 4am departures. Can this all change?

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Why do flights to India always arrive at 2am?
India's midnight travellers/ illustration: Vijay Verghese.

FINALLY, New Delhi has a gleaming new T3 airport terminal where bags sporting proud monogrammed casing from the likes of Louis Vuitton are not flayed alive and pounded to pulp. This is a great pity as it has deprived visitors of a time-honoured sport – laughing at fellow passengers as their crushed or irreparably dimpled bags appeared on the carousel. Road-kill schadenfreude aside, this facility is a testament to both incredible progress in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds as well as the ineluctable progress of all upstarts straight into the country’s vast and unsettling digestive tract, from whence they emerge transformed into something mockingly modern and very Indian.

Inside it is all reassuringly “contemporary”, while outside the experience is best described as adventurously “classic”, with milling crowds and the bullying continuum of history making steady inroads, slowly engulfing this beacon of hope. There was no one manning the Meru Cabs counter when I arrived. Where was he? Sitting slumped fast asleep in a chair outside arrivals, kerbside, head wrapped in a shawl. Wasting neither time nor calories, he arranged our transport with a commendable economy of motion, simply pointing at the nearest vehicle. “This one.” Then he passed out again. Welcome to Incredible India.

While T3 proudly celebrates India on its walls with huge art works, bright fabric, and carpets so deep you need a boat to ford them, it fights a guerrilla battle to keep India from its doors. It is a brave effort, and not necessarily doomed.

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Some things don’t change. Like the ungodly hour, usually 2am, when the international flights trundle in, disgorging their haul of bleary-eyed zombies. India has been a chest-out powerhouse in recent years. China may sniff at the economic comparisons, but here the similarities end. You can fly to Beijing or Shanghai at any hour of the day to suit your business or leisure schedule. Arrival into New Delhi or Mumbai is more conspiratorial, like a thief in the dark. It’s an ignoble entry to Asia’s up-and-coming behemoth.

Singapore Airlines has some day flights, Cathay Pacific one inordinately long sun run via Bangkok, and THAI Airways offers some non red-eye connections but, from Hong Kong and Tokyo, or from London and Paris, it is going to be a 2am wake-up call. Return flights to Hong Kong entail midnight departures, dinner at 2am, an hour of respite, and then a barrage of announcements, hot towels, and seats being slammed upright to get those chakras aligned. The alternative is to catch a flight out at 4am or so.

To argue historic timetables and scheduling inconvenience in the face of business traveller ire is gobbledegook. India may lurk in the 15th century but it is not all that far away

It would be unthinkable to offer a 4am departure out of Hong Kong to a major Asian city. Even with tourists willing to take lousy flights at lower rates, this would be an unusual gamble. So why do airlines not give India the courtesy, and timings, it deserves? The answer lies in the historic role of India as the mid-point in transcontinental movements between East Asia and Europe. The intention was to link producer countries with high traffic and Delhi was simply a waypoint on the milk run. So passengers could leave Hong Kong at a convenient time and arrive in London fresh for office. This invariably meant a midnight passage through India’s winter fog or summer haze.

That can and should change. To argue historic timetables and scheduling inconvenience in the face of business traveller ire is gobbledegook. India may lurk in the 15th century in parts but it is not all that far away. New Delhi is just over four hours from Hong Kong with the blessing of tailwinds. Calcutta is a two-hour flight from Bangkok. And Bangalore is three-and-a-half hours from Kuala Lumpur. With the helpful cushion of a two-and-a-half-hour time difference, it is entirely possible to get a plane from Hong Kong or Singapore to New Delhi or Mumbai by 10.30am.

India’s airport authorities may quail at the prospect of more flights entering the domestic air-space dogfight, yet international services into the country are hardly a torrent and could be accommodated with some intelligent time management. Arriving passengers could then forget about stepping into the stygian murk at midnight surrounded by strange men in shawls and, instead, with renewed confidence step out into the blazing 40-degree summer heat to try and wrest a taxi driver from the scrum.

And when you eventually get into a dusty Meru Cab to find yourself juddering down the new, elevated highway into Delhi, you’ll encounter one more remarkable improvement. The cabs not only have meters, they actually use them. Forget those exquisitely inscrutable plastic-hooded museum relics mounted on the bonnets of black-and-yellow Ambassador taxis. Now you pay what you see. It’s less fun without the haggling and hair pulling, and your bags will be disappointingly intact, but then that’s the price of visiting an Asian powerhouse. Welcome to Incredible India.

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