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Woes of an air traveller

From mindless designs to badly-trained staff, airports all over the world could really do with a makeover

brunch Updated: Apr 13, 2019 23:23 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Air travel,airports,makeover
One of the problems with all airports is that they are designed without an estimate of passenger traffic(Shutterstock)

No matter how much I write about my experiences as a traveller, it is the one subject I still get the most requests about on Twitter. “Why can’t you do a piece on how bad immigration is at most airports? “Why are airline seats so bad?” And so on.

And God knows I too have suffered enough while travelling, so here is a list of the things I find most annoying these days.

I don’t mind air travel. It is the airports that I hate. And I hate most of them to varying degrees (though of the ones I use regularly, the honourable exceptions are Singapore’s Changi, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and Delhi’s IGI).

The basic problems with all airports, the world over, is that they are designed by people with no vision. Ask why any airport is so overcrowded and you will get the same response: “This airport was designed to handle X numbers of passengers but traffic has shot up so much that we now have 3X passengers.”

Will airports ever get better? Some will, I think. But it will vary from country to country...

All of which begs the question: “Why didn’t you correctly calculate the estimated passenger traffic to begin with?” I have never got a satisfactory answer.

Retail dominates the public areas of modern airports. The people who own the airports (and more and more of them, the world over, are privately owned) make more money from renting out shops than they do from the passengers. So it is clear what their priorities are. Any journey to the aircraft gate or, at arrival, to the exit, will become an obstacle course at many airports. Like some hurdler, you will have to negotiate stands and stalls of liquor and perfume all being sold at so-called duty-free prices.

At Delhi, for instance, the moment you clear immigration, you will have to walk past a persistent mob of salesmen insisting that yougo to the duty-free shop before you get to the baggage area.

Retail and duty-free shops dominate the public areas of modern airports ( Shutterstock )

At most airports, the concern for buyers ends the moment you have made your purchase. The salesperson will make sure that his or her name is on your invoice (many of them are so persistent because they work on commissions) and then leave you to line up at an overcrowded cash desk. Why don’t they just build more cash desks? Well, because they would rather use the space for retail display.

In the rush to make money, airports ignore the things that passengers really need. Bookshops have become smaller and smaller. Some of them are theoretical bookshops – 75 per cent of the space is given to other items. There just isn’t enough money in books for airport operators to bother.

My great other bugbear is trolleys. All good airports should offer lots of trolleys for free. But try finding a trolley in the International Arrivals section of most Indian airports at around midnight.

In many European countries, airports charge for trolleys ( Shutterstock )

Some, like Goa, are so badly managed that you have to say a silent prayer to St. Francis Xavier or whoever to make sure you find a trolley at any time. Sometimes it is inefficiency. Often it is criminal behaviour. The porters hide the trolleys so that you are forced to hire them. Two English friends who departed Goa recently were hassled by a porter who demanded £10 sterling (in British currency) for carrying two bags.

Worst of all are airports that charge for trolleys. If you have just arrived in a strange country, you are unlikely to have local coins in your pocket. Yet, in France, Italy and many European countries, you can only get a trolley if you have the right change. At some American airports a trolley costs five dollars.

I have never understood why airports do this. They make so much money from landing charge and shop rents. Do they really need to screw every passenger on arrival?

Immigration often can be a problem. In India, it is the weak link in the system, staffed by semi-literate men who stare at their keyboards in dull incomprehension and treat passengers with contempt. It is changing for the better, but all it needs is for one officer to behave badly for the system to collapse.

Two decades ago, no one could have imagined the Delhi airport will be this great ( Shutterstock )

There are simple solutions. The first is to train the officers to use computers. They don’t know how to handle them and that accounts for their frustration and hostility. The second is to teach them how to talk. Apparently, they are obliged to ask departing passengers what the purpose of their trip is. I don’t see why this question is necessary at all but they can be taught to ask it in a nice (Business or holiday?) way notin an interrogatory “state purpose of trip” way. And when they go too far, they should be disciplined. At Bengaluru, one officer was refusing to let premium passengers board their flights unless they showed him confirmed return tickets to India.

Abroad, the basic problem with immigration is not that the officers are rude (in most of Europe they hardly speak to you) but that airports allot too little space and too few staff to immigration areas. Sometimes Heathrow can be the Black Hole of Hounslow because the lines are so long. And often, even at peak times, many desks remain unmanned.

The worst immigration officers are of course the Italians, who are lazy, bureaucratic and really don’t give a damn. I have seen passengers fainting in the immigration hall at Rome because it was so hot and overcrowded. But not one officer gave a damn. (The single worst immigration experience I have ever encountered was at Dulles International Airport in Washington but we will deal with that next week.)

A few airlines such as Emirates have held out for very good lounges of their own ( Shutterstock )

One of the few departments that has consistently improved over the last ten years is customs. I have travelled through Delhi and Bengaluru airport several times and rarely have I seen them hassle passengers. (Well, once. But once in ten years is not a bad record given how much I travel). But even here, there is huge scope for improvement.

The main problem is the X-ray. You may notice that often your luggage takes a long time to come and that when it does appear, some bags have chalk crosses on them. This means that a customs officer has X-rayed the bags before they went on the carousel and marked those bags that he believed contained contraband.

This is fine. If they have tips, then they must catch smugglers. My objection is to their laziness. The last time I came back from Bangkok they took one hour to X-ray the bags. Every 10 minutes or so, a clump for four bags would hit the belt. Then, nothing for 10 minutes. Then another six bags. And so on. It need not take this long.

Gordon Ramsay runs a restaurant at the Heathrow airport

I also have a problem with the exit X-ray at Mumbai airport. At Delhi (as in say, London, Singapore, Paris etc.) you walk through the green channel. If the customs officerbelieves you are carrying contraband, he stops you and sends your bags to an X ray. At Mumbai last week, I discovered that they wanted all passengers’ hand-baggage (and perhaps check-in bags too) to go through an X-ray near the exit. This led to queues. Old ladies found there was no one to help them put their bags on the belts etc.

If you don’t need to do it in Delhi why do it in Mumbai? Does the customs department believe that Mumbai people are more inherently dishonest?

You would think that with this explosion of fancy retail space, airports would also be full of nice restaurants. It hasn’t really worked out that way at international airports in India. The restaurants that exist are mainly fast food places and there are relatively few nice bars or coffee shops where you can wait for your flight. It is not like say, Heathrow, where Gordon Ramsay runs a restaurant.

Gordon Ramsay Plane Food is one of the few nice places where you can wait for your flight at Heathrow airport in London

In the old days, Business Class passengers (to say nothing of First Class) had it easy because their airlines gave them airport lounges. That is vanishing. Airports are selling one or two lounge spaces to general operators who then do deals with the airlines. If you travel Jet from Delhi or Mumbai, the airline’s biggest centres, there is no designated lounge. You use something like the Park Plaza lounge, which anyone can pay and use and is therefore always full. A few airlines (Emirates, for instance) have held out for very good lounges of their own at Delhi airport and Air India insists on creating its own lounges.

But whereas once, airport lounges were symbols of luxury, they are now dirty, overcrowded places where it is hard to find a seat and you have to beg for a Diet Coke. There is no glamour left. And sadly, there isn’t much comfort left either.

Will airports ever get better? Well, some will, I think. Two decades ago, who would have imagined that Delhi would have such a great airport? But it will vary from country to country and from government department to government department.

And if you are asking as a passenger whether air journeys will ever become painless, there is only one answer.

No.

From HT Brunch, April 14, 2019

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First Published: Apr 13, 2019 20:45 IST