05 Aug 2017 19:17 IST

Up in the air

Scams whiz past under your nose and sometimes you just don’t know

It’s a scam. Perfectly hale and hearty individuals demanding wheelchair facilities at airports. I had paid scant attention to this until I started to accompany my elderly mother on travels, and she, because of her Parkinsons, needed a wheelchair.

Selfish, sucky behaviour

The last time we flew out of Chennai, a pair of overzealous British Airways ground staff made her walk a few steps to check if she could — walk, I mean. I thought that was cruel, but not more cruel than, on a previous occasion, when at Heathrow the security staff there made her walk through for the body scan and then complained to me, “Ask her to stop shaking, will you?” Yeah, I wanted to tell her, clearly you have no idea that shaking is what Parkinsons is about.

The impression I got every time was that there was a shortage of wheelchairs, even though the airline (as, I suppose, all airlines) made a point of highlighting the services they offered in order to provide the most comfortable journey. This time, the “no wheelchairs at this time, madam” excuse derailed my patience and I gave the young man who directed the excuse to me, a proper dressing down.

Magically, a wheelchair appeared. Usually, the wheelchair comes with an assistant. This time, it was “Here, you want one, take one and be damned.” Damned if I wasn’t going to be damned! I took it happily.

You will find all kinds of people zipping about on wheelies, people much much younger than myself, and decades younger and more able than my mum, people perfectly capable of transporting themselves on their own two feet.

They hopped on and off with great panache and, it seemed, a well-ensconced sense of entitlement as their assistants fussed over them. I couldn’t figure it out. Are so many young people so unable? It was a real puzzle, until a friend said, quite facetiously, “Oh I know someone who asks for a wheelchair all the time, it’s so much easier to get around the airports!” That’s when the penny dropped and I thought, my god this is a scam and it must stop!

I don’t know how it is on other sectors with other nationals; my experience was with Indians travelling to the UK and the US and back. Even when I hadn’t realized this was a scam, I had felt odd and uncomfortable watching people enjoy the ‘benefits’ being a wheelchair-user provides, especially the chaperoning and the not having to wait. And it is certainly upsetting when genuine users are deprived of what is theirs by right. It sucks. It’s selfish.

Stories and stories

Journeys are interesting, especially if you unplug your ears, lift your head up from your smartphone, and let your fingers rest. At Heathrow, waiting to catch the flight and having arrived at the gate ahead of time (thanks to accompanying a wheelie-user), I watched a couple of couples greet each another with great delight.

After shamelessly eavesdropping on their conversations, I figured they didn’t really ‘know’ each other, they were returning from visiting their respective children in Dallas and elsewhere, and were now waiting to catch the same connecting flight back to Chennai.

“I brought some idlis, would you like some? I made them in my daughter’s kitchen,” one woman asked, unwrapping the foil on the treat. “Oh, I brought upma,” the other woman replied. “We just had it.” My mouth watered, for both, idli and upma! Then, standing right there in the middle of all the action, the first couple Facetimed their daughter and our corner of the hall coochie-cooed vicariously with their (obviously) recently arrived grandchild. Many of those waiting, bound for Chennai, were Tamil speaking, so it was like a big, happy, family get together. Like I said, journeys are fun.

They are also full of coincy-doincies . A couple I had noticed on our journey, six weeks earlier, from Chennai to London, were there on the same flight on our return! How freaky is that! Freakier still is the fact that the very same thing happened on our previous journey together, three years earlier.

My mum and I bumped into someone we knew (and her daughter) at the airport as we waited to check in — it was Chennai-London again. Then, one day I took off to central London to meet up with an old school friend. At the tube station back, I bumped into this same friend and her daughter. And, it doesn’t end there: they were returning to Chennai on the same flight on the same day as us!

That’s not all, as I’m sure I’ve shared before, but I cannot help sharing again: A couple of days before our trip, I had treated Amma to lunch at Ente Keralam: she loves the idiappam and coconut milk there. Another mother and daughter were at the table next to ours. Then, when we take our flight to London, we find that mother and daughter also on the same flight! Howzzat? Out and out crazy!

Expect the unexpected

People always complain about the interminable immigration lines at Indian airports. Well, they haven’t seen the great unwashed at Heathrow. I honestly wondered if I wasn’t on the slow-moving track awaiting darshan at Tirumala. The only thing that stopped me chanting “Govinda! Go-ovinda!” was the real possibility of baton-wielding security guards putting me in irons for suspected terrorist activity. At one time, there was just one counter in action; the worthies at all the other counters had all disappeared, presumably for lunch, while we fresh off the planeloads, well, we, waited. What’s so different about that?


But people can be decent too. Like the crew on board allowing Amma to access the washroom attached to Business Class, and helping her navigate her way up and down because after the first time, I was too embarrassed to guide her past all the people lying in different poses of prone.

I suppose what this means is, expect the unexpected, doesn’t it? One way or the other?