The rains have vanished, the flood waters in the city have dried up, but the havoc caused during the December rains is still fresh in the minds of Air India officials, who braved the rains to be on duty. Recounting the ordeal that Air India staff faced on December 1, Air India’s senior manager of corporate communications PR Vijayaraghavan said that at 8.45pm, the airport was bustling despite the rains.
Check-ins were underway for flight AI-967 (Thiruvananthapuram-Sharjah) and the flight was ready to depart. It was at this point that air traffic control informed them about closure of the flooded airfield. This sparked anger among the passengers, who had already spent a few hours at the airport. The closure of the airport had affected one domestic departure and four international departures for Air India alone, recalled Vijayaraghavan.
He said 500 Air India passengers were stranded inside the international and domestic terminals. “On that night alone, there were 2,000 passengers inside the terminal,” he says. The next day, the biggest challenge was to arrange buses to take the stranded passengers to Bengaluru. The buses came only after midnight and took 66 passengers with their baggage. At 3.30 am, passengers boarded the vehicle, but the drivers demanded additional deposits. Since no cashier was available, Ram Sundar, an Air India official, withdrew `25,000 from his account and gave it to the drivers.
Similarly, in the operations department, officers and staff who came for duty on the December 1 remained on duty. The catering department arranged lunch and dinner for the stranded passengers and breakfast and brunch the next day, thereby exhausting all its supplies. The engineers ensured that the aircraft were well maintained and fit for day time operations. The biggest challenge was to keep the coordination cell — the nerve centre of the airline — functional. This happened after Jayasekar, an officer in the cell waded through water and walked on the railway track to reach office, ensuring round-the-clock operations.
Even when operations were set to resume, the cabin crew roster found it difficult with the limited staff available in Chennai. Hence, those living near the Air India housing colony were drafted.
It was decided at the highest level to move the aircraft to Mumbai and Delhi but this required permission from the director general of civil aviation. While the permission was granted, the aircraft took off on December 5 thanks to the efforts of captain Bhagath Singh and the crew staying in the colony, says Vijayaraghavan.
It was not only the tale of resilience from Air India — there was also compassion. Food was supplied to flood-hit Karaima Nagar, Manapakkam, Jafferkhanpet and Saidapet, the worst affected areas along the banks of Adyar river. The employees also pooled in `1 lakh for flood relief. As many as 2,700 breakfast packets, 1,800 lunch and dinner packets along with water, candles, biscuits, sanitary pads, mosquito coils, bread, milk powder, torches and blankets were supplied. Air Indians in other cities also pitched in, said Vijayaraghavan.