Monday, July 28, 2008

The good and bad of India's new airports

The good and bad of India's new airports

July 26, 2008

So you thought that privatising airports would mark a new beginning in traveller service and amenities? Well, yes - and no. Visits last week to the four cities that have new, private airports provided abundant evidence of how things have improved in the domestic terminals: more spacious passenger concourses, more check-in counters, better conveyor belts, brighter lighting, improved flooring, nicer toilets, free porter services (they even refuse tips), better food options, quality shopping areas, easier movement to and from cars, more parking space, more taxis and bus shuttles, and a great deal else. You can see that when the work is completed, the country will no longer need to be embarrassed about its major airports.

There is still a lot of work to be done in Delhi and Mumbai, so they look bombed out in places. Delhi in particular looks chaotic. Work is behind schedule, so the inconvenience to passengers is lasting longer than it should. But a new runway is to be commissioned soon, and that means less time spent circling over the city. The relief is that the horror stories about the time taken to get to the Bangalore and Hyderabad airports seem overblown.

I got to a city hotel from the Bangalore airport in 36 minutes at 8 pm, and got back to the airport the next day in 40 minutes just before the evening rush hour. Not bad at all. Hyderabad took longer, about an hour, but you can see that an 11-km elevated track is being built to take you up to the national highway, from where it is a smooth run.

Unfortunately, the news is not all good. The departure gates at Bangalore are bunched together, and the waiting area after security check has been squeezed to make room for shops and a food court, so that passengers hunt for a chair to sit in, and queues snake through the rows of seats as people wait to board, and the departure announcements are as deafening as ever.

I missed the wonderful bookshop at the old airport; the new one has just a few bookshelves as part of a larger store. The airline lounges are not ready, though the signs don't tell you that, so you go round looking for them till someone makes you wise to the reality. Equally unpleasant was the discovery that access to the toilets is through a narrow passageway which traps the smells wafting out of the doors.

What was bizarre, though, was to find all aircraft at Bangalore stopping well short of the aerobridges, and shipping passengers to the airport and back in buses. For some strange reason, the Bangalore airport charges an airline separately for the use of an aerobridge, and since all the airlines are losing money, they are cutting costs.

That means a quick getaway once the aircraft docks is not possible, and still more time is taken up because the escalator is not working. Someone then turns it on, and as if on cue a passenger trips on his way up. The Bangalore airport company would be well advised to check on user feedback.

Hyderabad is better in almost every way: the quiet airline lounge is very welcome, and the waiting area at each departure gate is spacious enough to handle the traffic without people tripping over one another. But someone seems to have messed up badly on the flooring work because every tile has a stain around the edges, suggesting seepage from below.

For all that, the new airports are a welcome relief and I can't wait for work in Delhi and Mumbai to be completed. Good-bye, all you folks at Airport Authority who ran the old airports, and good riddance.


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