Chennai airport's new terminal is a joke

Last Updated: Tue, May 21, 2013 06:21 hrs

Chennai airport's modernization project  was meant to ease congestion, enhance passenger comfort and in short,  offer a never before felt departure and arrival experience for passengers. Post the modernization efforts, the terminal which had been put in cold storage for long,  finally opened for business  mid-April.

Passengers said it would have been more apt if it had opened on April 1, the All Fools' Day. Expecting to walk into a Dubai airport kind of experience travelers instead found as though they had stepped into a movie  set at pack-up time. Carpenters' tools, the clutter of masonry, blocked drainages, leaky or non functioning toilets and soggy carpets greeted passengers. The crowning glory of course was when over 40 false ceiling panels - or a little over 70 sq m - near boarding  gates H1 and H2 came crashing down . Luckily there was no flight scheduled at that hour, and officials must be patting themselves for achieving zero injury. 

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A few days earlier, some  glass panels had cracked, and even if you argue that a certain percentage of glass panels crack in all airports, too many things were happening at the Chennai airport that if someone wants to make a satellite television serial on the supernatural, they don't have to go location hunting. They can simply set up cameras or better yet, borrow CCTV footage.

 With its glass facade, the terminal has turned out to be  all show and very little substance, and if there is any long term vision, we are on the blind side of it. Airports Authority of India (AAI) I am sure, had a very good road map for its Chennai airport modernization project. It was so carefully planned that the blue print was not shown to anyone outside the closed group of the  AAI's construction wing. Sources say that airlines were not consulted at all, and ran into an air pocket when it came to baggage handling.

The new terminal consigned baggage handling job  to the basement area. Typically, airlines use farm trucks to transport luggage, but no one in AAI thought to ask how to ventilate  the fuel exhaust from the basement without touching the passenger waiting area. When faced with the problem, AAI merrily told airlines to get battery operated buggies to transport luggage. Well, someone did say let people have cake if they can't bread, after all. However, how often can you say that? What will AAI say when it opens the new international terminal - the civil aviation ministry has said it should open within a month - and people find out that it has provided only one baggage ramp leading into the basement?

Both incoming and outgoing luggage will have to traverse the same route. Sources  say that the ramp is very steep but AAI has not undertaken any study to analyze the risk factor. Airport officials will tell you that they are expected to use the existing international terminal as well, and having only one ramp in the new terminal is not a big deal. Experts rubbish such arguments and say that the existing terminal is an ageing structure, developing its own creaks . The big question then is why the authorities failed to provide for more than one ramp in the new terminal, given that they were anyway modernizing,  with an agenda  to accommodate growing passenger and cargo traffic, and to fix the existing bugs in air travel. The new domestic terminal can handle 10 million passengers and the international (old and new combined) can see upto 14 million passengers in a year.

Such huge volumes cannot be compromised merely because there is a traffic jam at the baggage carousel, caused by a solitary baggage ramp. Slapped with a higher tariff - with fewer perks such as free food—by airlines, air passengers are likely to demand efficiency in every corner, and are unlikely to put up with soggy carpets, leaking bathroom fixtures, uncomfortable waiting areas or poor baggage handling service.

Sources say that AAI had a grand plan but was hampered somewhat by lack of adequate space to turn that into a reality. Rather than downsize, the planners have gone for a lot of show, sacrificing the nitty gritty of passenger and airline needs and comfort. Social networking sites have been full of wisecracks from frequent flyers, with some even suggesting that  since Arthur Hailey is no more, someone else should write a sequel to his book,  Airport, and base it on the new terminals in Chennai airport.

Poor planning and execution have made the modernization effort a bit of a joke, but  sources say that expert management can turn things around. The civil aviation ministry is mulling two options. One is to  jointly manage  the modernized airport  with a foreign airport.

The second is to give it on lease to a private company, as has been done in Mumbai and Delhi. Indications are that the latter option may be exercised. Even if it means being slapped with user development fee, passengers are unlikely to protest, as long as services soar.

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