What 12-hour Layover in Chennai Taught us About Empathy

Chennai Airport Indigo
Waiting, waiting and waiting at Chennai – Photo by Andrius – November 2018

We thought it was going to be just another long layover at the airport – nothing like we have not seen or experienced before – a few hours of reading, maybe a meal, maybe some work on our laptops. It was not even a night at the airport…

At this point it is worth noting our 12 hour layover was not in Amsterdam, Paris or other western airport, it was in Chennai, India. A country known for its unique aptitude to make even the simplest things super complicated. We had a chance to experience this first hand when we travelled in India just about a month ago. However this most recent experience left us convinced that bureaucracy and endless, seemingly completely unnecessary procedural nonsense Indians do is just an inseparable part of what this country is.

Our journey started with us being told at the IndiGo check-in desk in Sri Lanka that we would need to catch one of the airline staff once we land in Chennai as our connecting flight to Singapore, even though bought with the same airline, was booked separately (in two separate transactions) and so both boarding passes could not be issued to us there and then. “That’s okay” we thought. We can simply ask the staff once we land to pick our boarding passes for us so that we don’t need to go through immigration (which means getting your passport checked about a hundred times again), pick our bags, check them back in, go through immigration again and so on. We hoped we’d just save a bit of time and hassle. That’s where it turned out we got it really wrong.

Telling the whole story with details would take ages and bore everyone out to death so all I am going to say about the process (from us arriving to Chennai to getting into the departures hall again) is that it took the airline staff 8 hours to print two boarding passes and all this time we were kept uninformed and we have even been lied to* about Singaporean immigration procedures; all the time we were cold and had no access to food or clothes to keep us warm.

We left Chennai surprised how uncaring, uncompassionate people might be sometimes. Disregarding the fact staff from an international airline did not have even basic understanding about customer care/service skills, the staff were oblivious to what was really going on. We never really asked for food (which is actually why everything took so long) and we never asked the staff to go out of her way in providing to us something extra. All we wanted is to be treated with a little bit of respect by being told the truth about when our tickets would be ready and when we could move away from the over-air-conditioned immigration hall. None of us would have had such a frustrating experience had we been told that our boarding passes will be ready in 8 hours and we just have to wait. The lie about Singapore immigration procedures* which turned out to be complete bollocks was unnecessary too (and I did consider this might be the treatment Indian citizens going to Singapore get up until the time I saw that was not true either).

To sum this experience up, there are a couple of things we learned from this and disregarding the fact it happened in the airport with people who we do not know, we can apply this in our everyday lives. First of all, set the expectations right – we were told it will be 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, then 1 hour, then 2 hours and then “when the documents are ready” and then “when the check-in desk opens”. All we needed was “We can’t tell you when, but it can take up to 8 hours. Until then, you will have to wait here, but we will check with you every hour or so in case you need something”. That would have done the job perfectly. No frustration, no confusion. And secondly, we learned how important it is to listen to what people are saying. We never asked for food, for water or immigration advice, all of which were provided to us. All we wanted were our boarding passes so that we could move to the waiting lounge. The lady might have thought feeding us biscuits would change our minds, but clearly it did not.

Even though it felt like a real struggle, we got what we wanted in the end and managed to arrive in Singapore. I have to admit the treatment we received in Singapore was much more pleasant than Chennai airport, but more about that in my next post!

*After about three hours of waiting in the immigration hall in Chennai (no boarding passes yet obviously) we were told the airline staff had to make sure we had all the required documentation and visas to enter Singapore. We explained that Lithuanian citizens do not need visas to enter Singapore but she clearly had a different opinion.

The lady insisted we had to either have a hotel booking for the duration of the stay, which, according to her, was going to be checked by the immigration officer in Singapore (by CALLING THE HOTEL to confirm we actually have the booking with them) or full address, passport copy and telephone number of a person living in Singapore who would act as a guarantor for us. To spice it up even further she allegedly called an “immigration manager” in Singapore who conveniently spoke the local (Indian) language. After that we were told that as per her phone conversation, failing to provide one of the above would result in us being refused entry to Singapore and sent back to India and subsequently to our home country. In the end we did not require anything extra – just the usual stuff like our passports and a fully filled out immigration card.

Thinking logically, if that was the case how long would it take to check hundreds and hundreds of passengers arriving in Singapore every minute?

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