Thursday, October 20, 2005
Some Day, Maybe..
A few months ago, I got into an extended argument with Mumbai airport director and Airport Authority of India (AAI) man Sudhir Kumar. Why, I asked him, did passengers transiting from domestic to international and the other way round have to exit the domestic airport at Santacruz, battle through pollution, monstrous traffic jams and terrible roads before arriving at the International terminal at Sahar, around 6 km away.
Note that this was the state of affairs for decades, until someone got a bright idea last year that lo and behold, transiting passengers could actually be given a special coach to move from one terminal to the other, inside the airport premises. The coaches are there finally, but predictably, there are too few. Arriving late night in Mumbai, its not uncommon to see weary passengers standing in long, sequestered lines with mounds of luggage in tow, waiting for that coach.
Kumar, the dutiful officer that he is, put up a brave defence of the Airport Authority's efforts to make life better for passengers. He brought out a detailed map of the airport and explained how it would be difficult to merge the two terminals. I stuck to my ground, arguing that the AAI had displayed phenomenal lack of foresight in not anticipating this aspect. And, I further argued, this had nothing to do with investments or infrastructure. It was plain, simple common sense.
Unbecoming Perhaps But..
Its somewhat unbecoming as a journalist to jump into the fray, so to speak, but given this writer's horrific experiences (and am sure many others as well) with Indian airports in general and Mumbai in specific, its tough not to override one's responsibility as an objective reporter trying to sympathise with all sides. Though despite having tried, I confess, I am still struck by the complete lack of application of mind when it comes to our airports.
And when an aircraft careens off the runaway and slips into loose soil, surely one of the commonest minor accidents involving aircraft all over the world, our folks struggled for four days to remove it, enlisting, in the process, the only other folks whose service standards they can perhaps compete with, the Indian Railways. And the AAI is doing us a favour if it removes the carcass, because, guess what, it's apparently the airline's responsibility. What if it was an occasional cargo aircraft which visited the country once a month or a charter flight. Sure, the AAI can slap a hefty bill for services rendered and maybe, top it up with a penalty, but how could they claim its not their job !
And there is good reason for this angst. I was on a Bangalore-Mumbai flight on Wednesday (Oct 12) night. We left Bangalore half an hour behind schedule (suitably forewarned) at 10 pm and landed in Mumbai the next morning at 1.10 am. We circled Mumbai for close to two hours as we were number 27 in the landing sequence. Aircraft landing on the alternate runway have to taxi half-way back because there are no exits at the end so each aircraft took perhaps three times as long. I think I spent the extra time productively though, dreaming of all the (international) destinations we could have touched in a three-hour flying radius.
Wednesday night's misery came on the heels of a AAI employees strike recently (September 27) protesting privatization of Mumbai and Delhi airports. Note that while we should be putting men and materials to work 24/7 to find a solution to our royal airport mess, we are debating the matter. Anyway, to the unions' misfortune, the strike was not the resounding success they hoped it to be. And yet, it is illustrative to hear out the demands made by the AAI unions. Its equally illustrative to note the tone and the tenor of their demands and various committees on the subject to conclude that Indian aviation is on a slow boat to nowhere.
Many of their demands are based on facts, ie, Mumbai and Delhi airports together handle over 70% of passenger traffic and contribute over 80% of revenue and (indirectly) subsidise 124 other airports. AAI is a profitable undertaking (so why privatize !), the government has not allowed AAI to upgrade Mumbai and Delhi airports despite it wanting to do so for the last 9 years.
True. A proposal to upgrade the two airports was prepared in 1996 at a project cost of Rs 715 crore. It took four years (with cost escalations) for that proposal to get all the clearances by which time it went into a limbo. By then, it was felt that privatization ought to be the way to go. Nothing happened has since then. This is unfair, but if I had first hand experience with AAI's services, then I couldn't be blamed for pressing for privatization. But that's a separate issue.
The Unions also point out how the AAI would be better off were it not for a host of small and not so significant aspects such as the handing over of security at the airports to the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) at a higher cost to AAI, earlier it was managed by Mumbai police.
Myths & More Myths
Then they also make a few myth vs reality points, for instance that efficient and world class airports like Singapore's Changi, Hong Kong & Kuala Lumpur are not privately owned either. They claim that AAI has actually executed projects or done consultancy for airports in countries ranging from Seychelles and Maladives to Libya and South Yemen . To conclude, in their view, AAI is best equipped to take on the project of upgrading airports and managing them.
Going by the look and feel of the new Terminal 1B in Mumbai for private airlines, or for that matter, the Indian Airlines terminals in Mumbai and Delhi, it may not be a bad idea to allow the AAI to oversee the construction of a new airport terminal and facilities – incidentally, they don't do it themselves, they hire the right contractor, Unity in Mumbai. Though hiring the right person can be a challenging task in government.
An aside: on joining, the minister for civil aviation Praful Patel smilingly told a small gathering of journalists of which this writer was a part, "Its interesting that you call them airports, because to me, they are nothing more than buildings built by the Public Works Department for the AAI." Brave.
But the problems of today's airports have less to do with construction and everything to do with mismanagement. For the AAI has failed miserably in every aspect of airport management, ranging from keeping the toilets clean to ensuring that loaders don't harass passengers. Frankly, narrow as it might sound, if an airport management can't keep its toilets clean, then it has no business managing one.
And that's the larger point here. Its not about not having the funds to build a Changi, nor is it about multiple runaways, carpeted foyers and glitzy shopping centres. Its about service, plain and simple. Its about clean toilets, a working information counter and an ability to make passengers feel comfortable, for the price they pay the AAI, via the tickets they buy.
Service calls for desire, dedication and motivation. An AAI employee typically regards you as someone who has encroached upon his time. A few years ago, I had to pay the driver of a supposedly free AAI coach to ferry a wheelchair ridden relative, from the international airport to the domestic one. When was the last time you disembarked at Mumbai's international airport ?
Note how the loaders side up to you at the baggage carrousel and ask you if you need assistance in `clearing' baggage. Clearance, for those who came in late, is whisking your contraband through customs for a fee, to be paid in dollars. And the offers are made so openly, you wonder if you've landed in some lawless African nation.
Once I asked a chief commissioner of customs how this form of soliciting, which obviously means that the customs folks are in cahoots, could happen right under their noses. He squirmed a little but claimed such instances were rare and dealt with severely. Didn't seem like, the confidence with which the loaders hit upon you and I saw a display as recently as early this year. Mind you, they typically zero in on the helpless looking, baggage heavy NRI types.
Too Little, Too Late
Has nothing changed in the last decade ? Well not quite. There is one new (half) terminal in Mumbai for the private airlines who so far made do with the equivalent of an air-conditioned cattle shed with two bookshops, a medical shop that charges roughly twice the market rate for a strip of Crocin and a contemporary `handicrafts' shop. Is the new half terminal rightly sized ? No way, try catching a flight between 7 am and 9.30 am on a weekday. Some smaller cities, after having lived with cattle-sheds (non air-conditioned) have finally got new terminals. Some of these are actually architecturally appropriate at first glance unlike Mumbai (old) and Delhi which could still pass for hospital lobbies or something similarly depressing.
But its too little, too late. Ever tried finding out if an international flight has arrived on time ? Well, I have seen indicators flashing Flight So & So at the arrival terminal even after the passenger has walked out and greeted me. So, the best way to establish that a flight is landed is to forewarn the arriving passenger to carry a cell phone and call you on landing. Tried calling the inquiry number for help. I did once but I do leave this challenge to the more enthusiastic and would appreciate responses.
What Goes Up Must Land Or..
Even as recently as Wednesday night, passengers waiting at the airports had little clue what was happening. In many cases they knew the aircraft had taken off, but did not know where it went after that. Its tough to believe a plane is up in the air for three hours when its flying time is one and a half. All forms of unpleasant thoughts might crop up in the mind unless of course you are told otherwise. Rest assured you won't.
The Unions claim their upgradation proposals (which sound competent on paper) are in line with the corporate mission of making world class airports. Sure, why don't they think, act and work world class first. Surely, you don't need a world class building to offer world class service or a service to start with. The Unions claim their employees have accumulated a wealth of expertise in operating large airports. Obviously, frequent travelers like me are blind to sight and numb to sensation, because one has never seen or felt anything that remotely resembles a wealth of expertise.
Future Thoughts Only
There is an interesting presentation by a Dr K Ramalingam, ED (Information Technology) on the AAI website. This was made (in his own views, the introduction adds) at an international conference on emerging trends in air traffic management. Since it sits on the AAI website, it must somewhere reflect someone's aspirations of what things should be, unless it's a cut paste job from a Changi or some such airport website.
The `views' include RFID (radio identity) chips for baggage identification, real time flight information on websites, self service kiosks and speech enabled technology for information and value added services. Oh yes, the presentation was made in 2002. So, three and a half years hence, not one of these `views' appears to have become a reality for the Indian air traveler.
To conclude, someone in there is thinking, in general if not specific. But thinking is not enough. The AAI is a disaster in progress in the 21st century. And to reiterate, this is not about investments and upgradations. Of course they must happen and should have long ago. This is about failing on every conceivable service delivery parameter that one can think of. One is not even talking of tardy air traffic controllers who allow so much space between take-offs and landings you think they operate only with the benefit of eyesight and without modern landing aids. Bangalore if I recall correctly is the worst in this regard, Kolkata, Delhi come close.
Deliver To Stakeholders Else..
Organisations, be they in public or private domain have to deliver to their stakeholders or at least show that they tried. The AAI has not just failed but has earned the wrath of every air traveler who has traveled in the last few decades. That's because the AAI has failed to even think passenger convenience, as I argued with Sudhir Kumar in his offices at Santacruz airport sometime back. That's why the Unions have no business claiming they can do a better job. Frankly, after all that torment, its too late for a second chance. The Unions grandly sign off their demands by saying they "Trust the citizens of India will opt for the best in the interest of the future generation." Well sure. I can assure you they will, without a doubt.
PS: Some more views, in case you felt this writer is biased..