I was in Chennai to do some senior leadership programs for Intellect Design Arena on the 30th of November and 1st of December. We discussed on 30th itself about completing the workshop by 4 pm so that we have 3 hours to get to the airport in case the rain becomes a major issue on the 1st. That day, I started from Naval around 4:30 pm and found that 90% of the road to the airport was clear and easy to travel. The bridge that takes me to the airport — about a kilometer from airport was flooded by5:15 pm and closed so we had to go back to Guindy and back track 10 km to the airport. That took about 2 hours and I was in the airport by 7:15 pm. Considering the airport did not have an issue the previous week with similar rains, I assumed that there would be no problem though my flight might be delayed. Spice Jet announced flight delays twice, and then by the third announcement they canceled the flight altogether and asked passengers to go outside the security area and pick up our luggage from the baggage carousel. That was my first mistake, because when I went out of the security area, it not only took 2 plus hours to get my bag from the airline (it was 1 am by that time), but because I was at that point no longer Spicejet customer due to my leaving the secured area, they had no obligation to give me food or water or take care of me. I found that many others including three participants from my program stayed inside the security zone and Jet got them dinner, place to rest and breakfast and lunch the following day.
I met two other senior executives in Indian industry and we ended up spending the night sitting on chairs outside the Jet Airways Lost Baggage area. That night, water was available, however no vegetarian food options were available other than sweets from Sri Krishna Sweets or Cookies. I passed on those and ended up having a banana for the remainder of the night, which was the only the thing I ate after the bhel puri, which I had eaten much earlier in the evening.
By the next morning, not only were the runways submerged in at least a foot of water due to the rains, but garbage had also collected had been floating about because of overflow from the Adyar river. Phones were not working reliably and both cell phone signal and battery charge was low. There were probably 1000 people in the arrival level of the airport and everybody occupied whatever places they could find to make sure they got access to power receptacles to charge their phone and computer. Luggage from baggage carousals was everywhere and there was not much help that was available.
When I reached out to Jet and Etihad Airways to postpone my flight from Hyderabad to SFO from December 2nd night until the following day, the people in the call center were receptive and assured me that I could get back to them once the airport is working or once I get to Bangalore or other cities where flights were not affected.
All night long, my hosts at Intellect tried to get me a hotel or pick me up from the airport. Most hotels were booked, or hotels like Habilis that had vacancies were not reachable. I tried to get a hold of friends but they did not have electricity or telephone connections and I could not go anywhere. By about 1 pm, Johnson, the driver from Intellect, came to the airport after 2 hours of driving in thigh deep water on many roads, and thanks to the help from Nilofar, a Jet Airways service representative for lost baggage, we could connect and get out of the airport.
We tried going to different hotels — Habilis, Grand Chola, Sheraton, Leela Palace — none were available or accessible. We went to the Intellect Guest House and even though they were full, they were willing to share the bed and help us out. They also had emergency power for the night. In the meantime, Vinodh, the HR head of Intellect invited me to go and stay with him and I did.
Around 9 pm in the night, Chennai airport announced that it is closed till the 6th of December. I then had to figure out again how to get back to SFO. Roads leading to Bangalore looked difficult to pass with the limited information we had and I then thought of Tirupati which is about 150 km away from Chennai. I booked a flight from Tirupati to Hyderabad the next day and was hoping to find a taxi to take me to Tirupati in the morning. Then I had another surprise from Etihad.
When I called Etihad again to rebook my flight from Hyderabad to SFO, I had a rude awakening. The call center person wanted me to pay ‘no show’ fees, change fees and difference in fare which amounted to over $2000 for the business class ticket. Even though I had been talking with them throughout the day over a span of six calls and they had assured me that I would not be charged fees and that a notation was made about my getting stuck in floods, this did not have any impact on the European Call center person. After several more calls and three hours later, they were willing to waive no show fees and difference in fare but I had to pay $340 to get on the flight. I was happy to do it and finally at 2 am in the morning of December 3rd, I slept.
However, later on December 3rd morning, I had another difficulty — no taxis were available to drive me to Tirupati. Again Johnson, the company driver from Intellect came to the rescue. Even though he had not gone home for two nights and had little sleep, he came with his Innova Van. Unfortunately, the van did not start when we were ready to go because of all the water in the engine compartment, alternator was affected (we found out later). Because there was no time, we push started the car and took off and despite water on some bridges and road erosion, we made about 120 km before the car completely broke down. I had to still go 20km and had 75 minutes before flight takes off. I tried to stop trucks and buses; finally there was a person with taxi service who got me a taxi and to the airport in time for 500 rupees.
So finally I made it to Hyderabad and onwards caught the flight to SFO and reached here on December 4th morning. Only problem is that I not only caught the flight but also flu bug on the plane and have been sick for past three days. I am at least happy to be home and luckier than 90% of the people who are still struggling with lack of electricity, phone service, food and drinking water.
What was amazing was the caring and support that everybody provided for each other. For example, Arun Jain of Intellect had mobilized the entire company to provide food, medical and other emergency services in Chennai. From what I understand, they alone supplied over 100,000 food packages, blankets and large numbers of medicines to needed people. One of these days, I will write about this amazing gentleman Arun Jain and how he is making a difference in Chennai.