Barely a year after we patted ourselves on the back for being the only Indian city to be named among 52 favoured travel destinations by the New York Times, and just a month after the success of the Global Investors Meet, our city is faced with a dubious first. Its airport has been rated among Asia’s worst. And that may not be surprising to those who have to frequently use the facility.
The survey, conducted by the travel website, ‘The Guide to Sleeping in Airports,’ talked to over 26,000 passengers during the course of one year, beginning from September 2014. Chennai’s terminal, in faring poorly does not have the consolation it did a few years ago when the same survey also included Mumbai and Delhi’s airports among the worst. Those have since invested heavily in improvements and in the latest poll have been ranked among the best in Asia. Not surprisingly, the Airports Authority of India, which manages Chennai’s airport, has strongly disagreed with the survey. It has in fact given the facility a rating of 4.3 out of 5. In its ranking, based on the Airports Council International’s Airport Survey, Chennai has moved in one year from 114th position to 56th.
The general public does not agree with the latter rating. The travel website’s study reveals that our airport scored very badly in baggage handling facilities and toilets. In the case of the former, the slowness in baggage delivery, the creaking carousels and the poor condition of trolleys have all come in for flak. The toilets have also been roundly condemned for being smelly and poorly kept. Though the survey does not mention it, the airport has also had several other issues – notably the falling of false ceiling panels and the cracking of glass panes. All this makes you wonder how on earth Chennai can claim to be a city of international standards.
From having been in 1948 the first city in India to have a civil airport (the rest were all military bases), Chennai has fallen behind quite a bit.
The problems have been accumulating over the years, beginning with controversy over the second runway that necessitated acquisition of land. This saw protests from the residential colonies in the neighbourhood. Thus there has been very little scope for expansion making the airport increasingly congested even as the number of flights and passengers has kept rising. Also, while airports in cities such as Bangalore and Hyderabad modernised through privatisation, Chennai airport’s revamp was entrusted to the Airports Authority of India, which rather predictably completed the job in a fashion that pleased none. Comparisons with other airports have been inevitable with Chennai always coming the worse off. For years there has been talk of a new airport to be constructed at a green field site but this never got off the ground. It is interesting to note that plans for new airports began simultaneously for Bangalore and Chennai and while the former’s facility has been in operation for almost ten years now, the latter is yet to take off.
The latest is that the Airports Authority is planning to spend a further Rs 1400 Crores on Chennai airport but if this is to achieve anything significant, the benchmarks have to be international and not the AAI’s own. Another step has been the announcement that the maintenance of the airport will now be privatised. This has been in response to the survey. But will this step in the right direction really suffice? Or is it time to once again look at a new airport facility?