My Last 27 Hours in Delhi

January 29, 2015
My Last 27 Hours in Delhi

I had a ticket to fly home on UA 083 from Delhi to Newark on January 2nd, 2014.

I was feeling ill after some minor food poisoning when I arrived at the airport. I’d thrown up once several hours earlier, but was feeling much better. Waiting in line to go through the second set of security at the gate, I felt the nausea returning, and asked a flight attendant for a bag for throwing up.

He didn’t understand me, so I kept asked over and over until I couldn’t take the nausea anymore, and lay down on the floor where I felt better.

At that point, I was taken to see the doctor, who shamed me for not going to see her earlier (I had stopped by the medical facilities when I first entered the airport, but the men there told me that it would cost money, which I did not have, and the long lines at security made me nervous about missing the flight). She gave me some Imodium and some injections to calm the nausea, which worked marvelously.

I offered $20, for which he was able to give me 700 INR in return.

At that point, the flight attendant asked if I still wanted to fly that day, which I responded to with an emphatic, “Yes, please.” I headed back towards security, and after a few minutes was told by a flight attendant that I had to pay for the doctor and my medicines. I held up a credit card and explained that I had American dollars and a credit card, but no cash.

She asked, “How much do you have?” and I showed her 300 INR, which was less than the 550 that I needed. She got on her cell phone, and after a few conversations brought me to a money conversion counter. I offered $5, which should have been enough to cover the difference.

The flight attendant gave this to the man behind the counter, and he shook his head. I asked the attendant what was wrong and she said he couldn’t change it without offering more explanation.

I offered $20, for which he was able to give me 700 INR in return. This was a complete joke, but at that point, I was too nervous about missing my flight to care.

I was “too sick” to sleep on the flight I’d booked for but was apparently well enough to make an emergency plan for myself and carry it out.

Some more attendants took me in a wheelchair through security, and I was led to the back of the flight where I took my seat, and popped an Ambien so that I could sleep through the majority of the flight. Just as the drowsiness was setting in, a “flight experience coordinator” stopped by my seat. She asked me how I was feeling, and I said fine.

She then informed me that I would not be allowed to fly that day, and that my bag was already being unloaded from the flight. I begged her to let me, insisting that I felt fine, and she said, “It’s a 15-hour flight. You won’t be comfortable sitting here. We’ll take care of you.”

With tears in my eyes from the exhaustion and the desire to go home, I was led off the plane and back into the wheelchair, where I was surrounded by flight attendants peppering me with questions. The Ambien had already set in, and I could barely keep my eyes open. I was still nauseous and had hoped to be asleep by this point. Someone asked me for my boarding pass.

“What? Why? I don’t have it anymore,” I said.

There were more voices. “We need your boarding pass! Why don’t you have it?”

I didn’t keep it, why would I?

“I didn’t keep it, why would I? I didn’t know you were throwing me off of the plane!” I said, frustrated.

“No,” said a flight attendant. “It’s not like that.”

I finally remembered that it was in my seat back pocket, where I had placed it after boarding the flight. “Are you sure? Are you sure?” the stewardess kept asking.

“Yes!” I cried. “Please!” I was wheeled into another corner, where I was left until my pass could be retrieved. Another flight attendant came by and asked for my boarding pass again. Again, I explained where it was and then closed my eyes, just wanting to sleep.

I was told I could stay in the airport or get a hotel. Remembering the long security lines and feeling my extreme exhaustion washing over me, I replied, “I’d like to just stay here.”

“Which hotel have you been staying in?” they insisted. I explained that I had come from Jaipur and had no hotel here. They chatted with each other and kept asking who I was staying with. I was exhausted and confused and angry, and told them that I just wanted to stay in the airport on the floor. Finally, they told me that they had to fill out some forms and were sending me to a hotel.

I sat in the wheelchair for an additional two hours while everyone filled out forms for me, explaining my discharge from the flight. “Where do you want to stay? Where should we take you?” I was asked.

I don’t know, I don’t know! I’ll search! I’ll find one!

“I don’t know, I don’t know! I’ll search! I’ll find one!” I kept saying.

I fumbled for my phone, opened the browser, and stared desperately at it, trying to claw through the fatigue of the medication and the lateness of the evening to figure out what to search for.

The next thing I remember, I was stumbling into a small room with men sleeping on couches and another behind a counter. I was shown to a small room with a bed with a thin blanket and collapsed onto it. I was woken up several hours later by a call on the phone next to my bed.

It was the owner of the hotel, asking to be paid. I explained that United had sent me there and I didn’t know where I was and was extremely tired and felt ill and begged to stay a few more hours, since I knew I wouldn’t be able to check in until 7.

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After some discussion, he agreed, but continued to call me, knock on my door, and even tried opening the door every few hours, waking me up and asking when I was going to leave and when he was going to get paid.

When I felt the need to use the restroom, I ran in and was greeted by a very wet floor and no toilet paper. As my stomach was still slightly upset, I very much needed to wipe myself and my pants, and had no way to do so. I looked around frantically and found some newspaper under some flowers and used that.

I threw those pants away and stumbled back to bed, shaking, and not in an awake enough state to even think about trying to contact my parents or anyone else who would have any answers for me.

“Is there an ATM?”

When I tried to check out about three-and-a-half hours before my flight and get a cab, I was told that I owed 33,000 INR (about $600 US). I nervously offered a credit card, desperate to get onto my flight. He told me they only accepted cash. I’d given my last cash to the doctor for the medications, and told him I had none. “How much do you have?” he asked. I showed him my fifteen remaining American dollars.

“Is there an ATM?” I asked. I shifted nervously, worried about missing my flight yet again.

“Yes,” he told me. “About 100 meters down,” and vaguely pointed out the door and to the left.

I’d been told by many of my Indian friends back home not to go out alone in Delhi, not even with another female companion, and especially not at night. It was 8 PM, but I didn’t see any other way. The man at the hotel was the only person standing between me and home.

I ran out, dodging cars, women clawing at me asking for money, and men leering at me. I heard what sounded like two gunshots and ran as fast as I could. When I finally found an ATM, it was jammed with people; I wouldn’t even have been able to get into the building.

My last 27 hours in Delhi

I ran back and told the man he’d have to come with me to help me find a machine. We had to go to three separate ATMs before we found one that functioned. “33,000 INR??” I asked incredulously, looking nervously at the machine and hoping that it wouldn’t cap the amount at the normal 10,000 INR. “No. 4,500,” he said, seeing that he wasn’t going to get what he was asking for.

I pulled the money, hurried back and got into a cab the hotel owner had called, pressing money into his hand, plus extra for accommodating me with apparently no explanation.

At the airport, I verified with the cab driver that fare had been covered by the hotel fee, at which point he asked me for a tip. I gave him some INR, and he laughed and put his hand on my luggage, asking for more, and in American dollars. I gave him $5 and ran towards the doors.

When I tried to enter the airport, I was met with resistance at the door, as my itinerary showed a flight from the day before. “It was moved!” I kept insisting, the panic returning. “See? I would be in Newark right now if I’d been able to take it. Please! Please!” She told me to go to the lounge for United, and vaguely pointed in a direction that didn’t seem to lead anywhere. “No! Please! Please!” I screamed. “Please, send me someone!”

Finally, she called someone over with the flight list, and I desperately pointed at my name. I was finally, mercifully granted access back to the airport.

I ran out, dodging cars, women clawing at me asking for money, and men leering at me. I heard what sounded like two gunshots and ran as fast as I could.

All of the staff who recognized me from the day before were very kind, and asked me how I was feeling. Sick with relief, exhaustion, and hunger, I blinked back tears and told them what had happened to me. They were all very apologetic, and helped me get to my gate. When I saw another staff member there who recognized me, I asked to see the manager.

I explained that they’d all treated me kindly, but that the policies they had in place worried me. He replied, “Yes, I know it’s policy, but as a human being… I’m so sorry.”

I spoke with the senior manager, who told me exactly what I expected to hear–that everything was policy, and that they’d had the right to do everything that they had done. I told him that I understood, but that I was concerned for others in my situation, and wanted to share what had happened so that the company could take steps to avoid this in the future.

I can’t blame United Airlines for not wanting a sick passenger on their flight. I can’t blame them for the conditions in Delhi. What angers me is that I was told that I was being removed for “my own comfort” and then was forced to wait for hours without any idea of what was going on. I was “too sick” to sleep on the flight I’d booked for but was apparently well enough to make an emergency plan for myself and carry it out.

My last 27 hours in Delhi

When I couldn’t make sufficient arrangements for myself at 2 AM in a foreign city, I was dumped in an place with conditions far worse than the airplane or airport floor that I obviously couldn’t pay for, all against my wishes (and, apparently, without the knowledge of the hotel manager).

If I was not well enough to sit for 15 hours, I was definitely not well enough to have to fend for myself in a dangerous area I was not familiar with and to fight my way back to potentially go through the whole process again, without so much as an apology. Though I’d written to United customer service reps, I never heard a word back.

United, the next time that it is “just your policy” to remove someone from your flight and wash your hands of all responsibility, I hope that you remember this story and treat that person with a modicum of respect. No one in the custody of your airline should be made to feel this abandoned, scared, and alone at the must vulnerable possible time.

About Ilana Segall

Ilana is a 28 year old quantitative researcher in San Francisco who loves pickles, hates cheese, and despite the occurrences in this article, loved her time in India.

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