Sunday, December 03, 2006

Indian airports - bad situation

I just completed a flight across India to the US via Frankfurt. Doing such a trip makes an Indian realize how really primitive the facilities are that are provided in Indian airports. There is no specific reason as to why such a disparity exists. It cannot be due to airports being good only in rich countries. There are many Asian countries that have excellent airports, and they can by no stretch be light years ahead of Indian in terms of economic development.

An airport is a very important symbol of a country, as it presents the first impression to any visitor. Is it really that difficult to make Indian airports world-class ? If one were to list down various factors that make an airport world-class in terms of facilities offered to visitors, none of them are very complex. Let me list a few:

1. Clean place (terminals, restrooms, people)
2. Adequate parking
3. Good arrangement for visitors
4. A good shopping experience for visitors who have time and money to spend
5. Nice eating experience
6. Not too much waiting for things to happen
7. A fast experience through the various processes

Instead, my experiences in Indian airports have always left me shaking my head, and sometimes squirming in embarrassment when a visitor points out something that is so obviously wrong. Indian airports are never as clean as other airports; their paint schemes are a dull colour; the less said about shopping experiences, the better. I wonder how many people have had the experience of coming back after a tiring 24 hour flight to an immigration room that was incredibly full of people, and which seemed like a chaos room gone crazy. It is not pleasant at all.

How many times have you been standing in a line for clearing emigration, when some friendly official comes to talk to the official attending to your queue, and looking at them, you cannot but observe that this is not any official work, but some kind of gossip that is delaying your processing.

I have always wondered as to why Indian airports are so paranoid about security that security checks can happen again and again. Sometimes one gets the feeling that they feel that insecure situations can happen again even after one level of security check. When I was picking up my luggage at foreign airports, it was easy to spot luggage originating from India; they always had a band tightly wound around them, and I don't think any airport elsewhere in the world apprehends that luggage can be tampered with after a security check.

Congestion is another problem. Most airports have only one serviceable runway, and to have only one runway when so many airports around the world have multiple runways to handle congestion does not make sense.

As I said, none of these problems are insolvable. A observer might claim that these are going to be solved through airport privatization, but a basic question remains as to why such a situation has arisen. The Government run body collects money from every transaction for airport tax, runs the airports badly, and then posts overall losses. Maybe it would take some time to change the situation, but the basic issue of placing the administration under government control has created a situation where the inducement to improve things is totally lacking. The sooner such changes happen, the better. Indian infrastructure is too important to depend on some minister's personal commitment to improve the situation.

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posted by Ashish Agarwal @ 6:05 PM