Air India One, Seat No 59G

President Pratibha Patil

Cuisine of your choice, coloured ID tags by your profession; press gets a yellow tag. Welcome to the world of VVIP air travel.

If the seat number on your airline boarding card reads 59G, you are likely to be seated somewhere in the depths of the cattle class on a large aircraft like a Boeing 747. Except, of course, if you are flying Air India One (AI-1). Your correspondent discovered this to his pleasant surprise on September 9, when he accompanied President Pratibha Patil on a state visit to Laos and Cambodia as a member of the media entourage. 59G, as it turned out, was indeed located towards the rear of the aircraft, but in this reconfigured 747, it was an executive class seat (no flat beds, this isn't the brand new Air India).

The affable and usually calm Anil Suri, publicity officer (from the MEA's external publicity division) was at his wit's end. The press apparently takes its freedom very seriously on such excursions, often to the point of anarchy. One journalist, who arrived at the wrong terminal, was "lost". Suri needed the lost journalist to get to Air Force Station, Palam, the place of departure and arrival for Air India One. VVIP flights such as this one requires everyone, except, of course, the president and her senior bureaucratic entourage, to reach at least three hours before departure (D-3, they call it). The check-in, immigration and customs formalities are conducted outdoors under a makeshift shamiana adjoining the small VVIP lounge at the Air Force Station, Palam.

Needless to say, everyone was aboard well before the president arrived. The president, has a separate enclosure in the aircraft. Everyone on board is required to wear an ID card, and the colour of your tag reveals who you are. The members of the official delegation (consisting of top babus, joint secretaries and above) are given purple tags, and they sit right in the front of the aircraft in a first class configuration. The accompanying officials (junior babus and support staff) are tagged in pink. Of these, the junior babus (from the MEA and president's office) sit in business class on the upper deck. The support staff, president's cooks and butlers join the security team (tagged in red) from the Delhi police (not SPG) in the small economy class section behind the media. Journalists, incidentally, sport a prominent yellow.

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