Sucheta Dalal :An ordinary air traveller's post-holiday blues
Sucheta Dalal

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An ordinary air traveller's post-holiday blues  

Oct 4, 2004


Before the skies are opened, ministers need to experience bad infrastructure and corruption at Indian airports


Two eminently sensible announcements by Manmohan Singh’s government still have me worried. The first is the austerity drive, which bars unessential foreign travel and restricts it to senior bureaucrats. The second is the decision to award landing rights to airlines from nine new countries, including Australia, Korea, Sweden, Finland, Austria and some from the former Soviet Union.


Why are these decisions a problem? The answer is the post-holiday depression that inevitably sets in after a self-paid trip to one of the Southeast Asian countries. In my case, it was Malaysia, a country that offers spectacular vistas, world-class infrastructure and flawless service at prices the Indian middle class can afford.


The same holiday in India would have cost more, without either the service, or the infrastructure. Yet, our politicians cannot stop talking about their grand plans to boost tourism and open up our skies to the world.


The problem, I decided, is that our babus, who are usually whisked in and out of ‘reserved lounges’ at airports don’t ever experience what an ordinary paid traveller goes through on a flight out of India and they don’t have to share the shame of our corruption.


Consider what happens at India’s gateway to our commercial capital, the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. There is no shortage of space inside the airport. In fact, the long corridors are empty and desolate even though the three-hour check-in rule cries out for multiple snack bars and restaurants that are standard fixtures at all decent international airports.


But there is clearly a reason why we have a solitary, tacky, exorbitantly-priced restaurant at one end of a long corridor, with a limited menu and lethargic service. The reason has nothing to do with security concerns or space.


But hold on, did I say bad service? No, there is excellent service on offer for foreigners (read dollar-paying white tourists). Over nearly two idle hours at the restaurant and in the lobby, I watched a wiry character walk briskly up and down, accosting suitable tourists, to sell them the comforts of the business class lounge for just $11. “You can eat, sleep, have a drink, or just relax,” he urged surprised travellers. At $11 (Rs 500), it was a steal and many quickly fished out the money.


Obviously, the system is so well-greased that the staffer coolly ignored our interested stares as he quoted his price, pocketed the money and proceeded to carry the tourist’s bags into the lounge. Who said India didn’t offer world-class service at low rates? I watched at least four such transactions in an hour, which provides some clue to the kind of income being earned at the cost of the lounge. A disgusted young constable told me how this money-making was a round-the-clock activity of the staff. I accosted the tout as he trotted out looking for another customer. He coolly showed me his identity card (which read Walter) and confirmed that he worked at the monopoly restaurant inside the lounge. Is it any wonder that the restaurant was tacky? Its employees busy elsewhere.


This is not the only monopoly outlet at the airport. India is among those rare countries that boasts a kiosk inside the security area. Since its only customers are those fatigued by delayed departures, it charges a 400% premium. The privilege of its monopoly position.


Neither our politicians nor our policymakers have any way of witnessing this sickening petty corruption, because obsequious government employees whisk them through our tacky airports.


The return journey showed that liberalised travel allowances and baggage rules mean corrupt customs officials are no longer strutting around and humiliating passengers. But the ‘licensed’ airport helpers are still not accustomed to changed conditions. They still go from one passenger to another, asking if one needs help in ‘clearing customs.’ Some senior citizens and first-time travellers also report that oficials extort money from them through intimidation.


The government’s generosity in allowing nine new countries to fly their airlines into India only means more business for Walter and his restaurant colleagues, higher prices for paying customers and more degradation for India among international travellers.


Yet, international airlines are fighting to come to India, because we are indeed a big market, not adequately catered to by our monopoly international carrier. Flights to the US and Europe are already booked until February and global airlines reeling under heavy losses are ready to put up with our infrastructure hassles to get Indian business.


Ordinarily, this would mean growth, infrastructure development, employment and enormous business opportunities for the hospitality industry. But, somehow, that does not happen in India. Demand does not translate to legitimate growth or employment. Instead, every time things are looking up, we have airport employee or civic staff going on strike, or threatening a go-slow.


It boils down to just one thing. Unless more Indian officials experience first-hand the facilities that are on offer at our gateways to the world, there will be no change.


It is all very well for tourism minister Renuka Chowdhury to make a statement by driving a tractor in her constituency, or taking it to Parliament to lodge a protest. But she and aviation minister Praful Patel need to travel incognito and in economy class, in India and abroad, to see the contrasts and experience bad infrastructure and brazen corruption.

-- Sucheta Dalal