How I was robbed flying Air India from New Delhi to Hong Kong

Yonden Lhatoo shares his nightmarish experience travelling on India’s national airline, during which money was stolen from him in a highly devious and audacious mid-air scam

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 1:08pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 December, 2017, 11:15pm

I had a sinking feeling about my journey to Hong Kong on flight AI310 when I reached the boarding gate at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport to be informed there would be a one-hour delay.

At the boarding gate across from us on Thursday night, another Air India flight, to Mumbai, was caught up in some kind of drama, with ground staff screaming their lungs out at each other and into their walkie-talkies over some crisis I couldn’t quite figure out, preoccupied as I was with the prospect of a tedious wait ahead of my least favourite pastime – flying economy class.

My own gate was soon the epicentre of another loud drama as one angry passenger after another launched into yelling contests with Air India counter staff over the inconvenience caused by our delay, which ended up lasting nearly two hours.

Our Boeing 787 Dreamliner, arriving late from Mumbai, had apparently developed technical problems and had to be replaced with another aircraft.

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The “stuff dreams are made of” and the “dream come true”, as the state-owned airline advertises its 787 service, was already turning into a nightmare.

We were originally scheduled to fly at 11.15pm Indian time, but it was around 1am when we finally took off. The plane swap meant many passengers lost their window/aisle/emergency exit seat bookings and there was much commotion on board, compounded by ground staff running up and down the aisles looking for “missing” travellers.

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I ended up in 22D, a middle-row aisle seat, and stashed my carry-on luggage – a small, nylon, zip suitcase – in the locker directly above my head.

Along with some clothes and books, I had in it a leather bag with my laptop, iPad, and some US, Indian and Hong Kong currency. I was carrying about US$3,000 in 100-dollar bills.

My suitcase had no lock, but it was so tightly packed and heavy that I remember thinking it would take considerable effort and skill to remove it or prise the leather bag out from above my head without my knowledge.

The journey lasted less than five hours, and I drifted in and out of sleep through most of it. I could sense the occasional passenger brushing past me for a toilet trip, and cabin crew going about their business up and down the aisle while most of us dozed off.

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When we landed in Hong Kong on Friday morning, a very quick inspection of my carry-on baggage suggested everything was in order and I left the aircraft.

It was only in the evening, while unpacking at home, that I suddenly discovered all the US$100 bills were gone; they had been replaced with US$1 notes – 21 in total. Nice exchange rate.

The sneaky switcheroo had worked exactly as intended. Nothing else had been stolen and that was the genius of the con – I would have easily spotted a missing laptop or credit cards.

I’m just stunned by the sheer audacity and duplicity of it all

Whoever took the money would have had to remove the bag, take it away to carry out the elaborate swap and bring it back – it could not have been done above my head without waking me up.

The only time the suitcase was out of my sight otherwise was for a couple of minutes when it went through the X-ray during the security check earlier. That’s also the first time someone would have seen there was money in it.

I’ve heard of organised gangs being responsible for mid-air thefts, even involving a nexus of X-ray checkers and cabin crew, but have never been a victim myself until now. I’m not saying that’s what happened here because, frankly, I have no clue. I’m just stunned by the sheer audacity and duplicity of it all.

The money I lost is neither a fortune nor a trifling amount, but whoever stole it, I hope you choke on it, seriously. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, you bunch of brazen mid-air bandits.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post