- The Kolkata airport is a microcosm of everything that it wrong with the city itself. Here’s a ground report from one who had to suffer.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose would definitely not have approved. A strict disciplinarian and a stickler for order and efficiency, the founder of the Indian National Army (INA) would have been horrified by the prevailing state of affairs at the sprawling swanky airport in Kolkata named after him.
The present integrated terminal (T2) of the airport was inaugurated by former president Pranab Mukherjee on 20 January 2013. The massive steel and glass structure even won accolades and the new terminal was adjudged by the Airport Council International as ‘Best Improved Terminal’ (for Asia-Pacific region) award for the two consecutive years of 2014 and 2015. It’s another matter that the old terminal (T1) was so bad that even repainting its walls – leave apart constructing a glitzy new one – –would have been considered a vast improvement.
But the new terminal always suffered from an intrinsic organic malaise: it’s management lay not with a private operator but the Airports Authority of India (AAI). The heavily unionised and wayward AAI employees are singularly responsible for the present sorry state of the airport that was built at a cost of Rs 2,300 crore. The AAI Employees Union had consistently and successfully resisted moves by the Union Civil Aviation Ministry and the AAI management (which knows the nature of its lower level employees very well) to privatise operations at the airport.
The result (of AAI handling airport operations) is there for all to see. The Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport is a living testimony to the truth of the adage of not judging a book by its cover. The airport structure looks good and the architecture is distinctive. But many things are rotten inside. The washrooms are in a state of perpetual mess and emanate a foul odour. Leaking faucets, stained walls and overflowing bins are the result of callous staff who know that no matter what they do (or don’t do), their jobs are secure.
The biggest irritant is, however, the acute shortage of baggage trolleys. Most of the ones that are available suffer from major defects and are non-functional. The AAI staff responsible for retrieving trolleys and parking them at their designated bays in the arrival lounge and outside the departure lounge are a notoriously negligent lot who can often be seen lazing around and even sleeping on the seats meant for passengers.
Many efforts to discipline them have failed since they are all members of a union that is affiliated with the ruling Trinamool Congress (their union was affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) before power equations changed in Bengal). Political protection allows them to be shirkers and the AAI management has been unsuccessful in making them do their work. The employees have, in the past, even gone on flash strikes and held unruly demonstrations inside the airport when disciplinary action had been taken against them, thus severely inconveniencing passengers.
Many areas of the airport wear a shabby look, thanks to a lack of maintenance. Thick layers of dust cake artificial plants at the arrival lounge and the installations in the departure areas. The cleanliness and sparkle of the airports in other major cities is clearly missing here.
Getting the registered baggage after arrival is a major sore point in Kolkata. It takes a minimum of 30 minutes after disembarking from the aircraft to get one’s baggage from the baggage carousel. The minimum waiting period in front of the baggage belt is 20 minutes. In Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune and Chennai, for instance, passengers don’t have to wait for more than a couple of minutes at best to get their baggage; often, their baggage is doing the rounds on the belt even before they step into the arrival lounge.
This again is due to unionised employees. The callousness, lethargy and even criminal negligence of the AAI staff have rubbed off on the contractual employees engaged by the airlines. It is these contractual staff who are responsible for unloading baggage from aircraft, transport them to the terminal and then putting the luggage on the belts. They are slow and negligent and can often be seen lounging around. Whereas offloading of luggage starts immediately after the aircraft reaches the parking bay (and even before the doors of the aircraft are opened for disembarkation) in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and other airports not affected by the scourge of AAI’s unionised and undisciplined employees, in Kolkata, it starts well after passengers start disembarking. Once again, efforts by airlines’ managements to discipline their contractual employees and make them work efficiently like in other airports have been unsuccessful since they draw inspiration from the powerful AAI employees, who encourage them to be wayward and promise them protection.
If first impressions are the lasting impressions, first time visitors to Kolkata landing at this airport would have already formed a poor impression of the city, once known as the second city of the British Raj (after London). The negative impression will only get reinforced after coming out of the arrival lounge. Passengers are greeted with a deafening cacophony of vehicle horns, an unruly traffic and, worst of all, extortionist touts waiting like vultures to pounce on unsuspecting visitors. Ill-clad and foul-mouthed, they encircle passengers they suspect to be non-residents of the city in order to fleece them.
Police are powerless to crack down on them since the touts enjoy the patronage of the ruling political party and are, often, Trinamool activists. Utter chaos, and without any order, prevails on the carriageway outside the arrival lounge. Flying out of, or in to, Kolkata is thus no pleasant experience. And the city suffers because of this.