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The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Airports are the worst thing about travelling, especially in Europe

In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi compares the world’s airports, and how Delhi’s Indira Gandhi may be far better than even London’s Heathrow, Singapore’s Changi or Narita in Japan.

more lifestyle Updated: Jul 26, 2017 15:23 IST

Ask any frequent traveller what the worst part of travel is and you will usually elicit the same response: Airports.

The general rule is that the further West you go, the worse the airports get. As even Donald Trump has said, US airports are terrible, almost as bad as US airlines.There are very few world class European airports and British airports have declined dramatically over the last decade or so. Even when the West tries to get it right, it fails. British Airways’ so-called state-of-the-art Terminal 5 at Heathrow has been plagued with problems of one kind or the other ever since it opened. (Mostly: technology-related.)

A Singapore Airlines flight at Changi Airport. ( Shutterstock )

Asian airports, on the other hand, are among the world’s finest. Singapore’s Changi is not as good as it used to be but it is still pretty damn good. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi and Seoul’s Incheon are all far ahead of their counterparts in the West. The international airport I use the most, Delhi’s Indira Gandhi, is terrific.

One reason why we don’t like airports has nothing to do with the buildings themselves but with the staff. In the old days, I used to dread flying back to India because the immigration counters (run, in that era, by policemen) would be too few and the officials would be corrupt or illiterate or both.Then, customs would open all your bags and make you explain the provenance of each item of clothing.

In those days, the cops at immigration desks routinely extorted money from passengers. It very nearly happened to me. On a trip out of Delhi in the late 1980s, the policeman at the Immigration Desk looked at both my passport booklets and pointed out that one had a Bombay address while the other had a Calcutta address. Why was this?

I explained that the first booklet had been issued in Bombay when I lived there. It had run out of pages so I had been issued a new booklet. This happened in Calcutta because I had now shifted there. I offered to show him ID and address proof (I was then editor of Sunday, a Calcutta-based weekly). In any case, it was quite legal to have a passport issued by any passport office anywhere in India.

No, he said. This was very suspicious. He would not let me board my flight.

Even as I outraged about this, he took me into an inside room and indicated that we could come to some kind of arrangement. By then, Air-India had noticed that a passenger was missing and traced me to the room where the cop was trying to shake me down.

“Paagal ho!” the Air-India Duty Officer said to the cop. ‘Yeh toh patrakar hai!”

Senior immigration officials were summoned and I was allowed to board the flight.

Air India planes docked at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. ( Shutterstock )

I asked the Air-India guy what that was all about. “It is very common,” he told me. “They do this routinely with labourers going to the Gulf. If those guys miss their flights and do not report for work on time, they lose their jobs. So they have no choice and have to pay these policemen whatever they ask for. You are a journalist so the police let you go.”

Fired with righteous indignation, I wrote detailed letters of complaint to everyone in the chain of command all the way up to the then Home Minister Buta Singh, who the Delhi police reported to.

Not one person even acknowledged the letter.

I wrote to Buta Singh again. When he did not respond, I called his office. Had my letter reached? It had. Would the Home Minister be looking into the racket at Immigration? They had no idea.

I never got a response from anyone and the racket went on.

Many years later (around 1996 or so, I reckon), I had an even worse experience at Bombay airport. I was horrified to see a passenger slipping a few high denomination currency notes to the cop at the X-Ray so that he would let him take on board whatever dangerous substance had been discovered in the X-Ray of his bag.

I complained to the Inspector on duty. He said he might listen to my complaint but it would take time. If I wanted to make an issue of it, I would miss my flight because he would stop me from boarding the plane.

To the credit of the Bombay police, when I later filed a written complaint they conducted an inquiry and took action against both policemen.

That incident restored my faith in the system and since then, whenever I have come across anything untoward, I have always complained. Fortunately, things are much better at Indian airports now. The CISF handles airport security and does a far better job than the police used to. Customs (at least at Delhi airport) are usually polite and reasonable. And a new Immigration outfit has taken over. This is still the weak link in the chain but it performs much better than the local police ever did.

A fleet of British Airways planes at London’s Heathrow Airport. ( Shutterstock )

It helps also that this government has taken the sensible step of doing away with the pointless arrival and departure cards that Indians had to fill in when they travelled. Senior officers at airports are also more responsive.

Last week, I flew from Delhi to Bangkok. The Immigration Officer looked at my Thai visa and asked where I was going. Thailand, I said. Was the visa valid, he asked. Yes, I said and showed him the dates. I didn’t really need the visa, I said, because Thailand gives visas on arrival. But I had a long-term, multi-entry visa anyway.

Part of it was written in Thai, he then pointed out. Yes, I said, many foreign countries did that. They used their own languages, along with English on the visas. But all he had to do was read the English part.

No, he said. He could not read what was written in Thai. So he would not stamp my passport. I explained that I had already travelled out of Delhi three times on the same visa. He was not interested.

Eventually I asked him to call his supervisor. He took my passport, left the counter and disappeared for many minutes. Finally, he returned and conceded that I could board my flight.

I could have left it at that but mindful of the fact that this man could deny boarding to other less experienced passengers on similar trumped-up grounds, I went to the complaints counter. They took me to see a senior officer. By then, my Immigration Officer had also arrived at the senior officer’s cabin.

The officer heard us both out, apologised to me and upbraided the man who wouldn’t let me travel because he did not read Thai. I was impressed. Things appeared to have changed for the better.

Later, as I walked to the plane, many people who worked at the airport congratulated me for complaining. “These guys bully passengers all the time,” they said. “Thank God somebody complained to their bosses.” So perhaps things haven’t changed all that much!

But fear of officialdom is not restricted to Indian airports. Passengers can be hassled anywhere. In the US, immigration officers can be rude and menacing. They can’t really deny you entry if your papers are in order. But they can send you for a secondary examination, a process that involves a wait of several hours. In Britain they are friendly but over-worked. The queues at the so-called Fast Track counters at Heathrow are mind boggling. In most of Europe, on the other hand, they couldn’t care less about admitting you as long as you have a valid Schengen visa so queues move quickly.

An Al Italia plane stands at Rome Airport. ( Shutterstock )

The worst airport in Europe is Rome where, in keeping with the fine traditions of Italian bureaucracy, the Immigration guys take long cigarette breaks ignoring the queues in front of their desks, flirt lazily and at great length with women passengers and take ages to read a single passport. It does not matter to them that the Immigration hall is over full or that passengers are fainting from the heat. Even Dhaka is better.

In some Asian countries, officials may be bent. When I arrived in Rangoon in the early 1990s, my host had to bribe the immigration officer to stamp my passport though my documents were in order. (“It is normal here” he said nonchalantly while I looked horrified.) In Cambodia, two years ago, the Immigration officer asked if I had a gift for him. When I said a firm no, he looked angry but let me through. Leaving Thailand once, many years ago, the Immigration Officer took my passport, left his desk and asked me to follow him. I wondered what this was about but, to my surprise, he did not take me to an office. Instead we went to the duty free shop where he used my boarding card and passport to buy three bottles of whisky for himself. (“You no mind?” he twinkled.)

A fleet of Japan Airlines planes at Narita Airport. ( Shutterstock )

And sometimes, airports can surprise you. Japan is one of the most civilised countries in the world but on the two recent occasions when I have landed at Tokyo’s Narita airport, the scene at the Immigration Hall has been one of total mayhem.

But Narita is an exception. On the whole, countries get the airports they deserve. It was at Heathrow a decade ago that I first noticed the signs that read “It is a crime to abuse or assault any member of our staff.”

And indeed it should be. But as somebody who has seen how Heathrow is run, I can understand why they need to put the signs up.

First Published: Jul 26, 2017 10:16 IST