What ails the BIA? | Sunday Observer

What ails the BIA?

Often in our houses, the entrance and the living room are the cleanest and most visually pleasing areas in the entire house, simply because we believe beauty and cleanliness in the front says it all.

The prime gateway to the country, the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) is the entrance to not just another country but to the world’s best travel destination for 2019, as hailed by the world famous travel publication ‘Lonely Planet’. But, are we making our prime entrance to our beautiful land a pleasant place? The answer is debatable.

Wonder of Asia

‘Sleepingatairports.com’, a renowned website which ranks airports in terms of their hygiene, beauty, amenities and many other criteria, named BIA as one of the 10 worst international airports in the entire Asian region in 2016. In Asia, where there are approximately 327 international airports BIA being ranked among the worst 10, is an absolute achievement in reverse.

However, in contrast, the BIA becoming a messy airport is something inevitable, for though designed and built as an international airport with a single terminal to handle only six million passengers per annum, it now handles 10.5 million passengers per year. This has led to many breakdowns in the services of the primary gateway of the ‘tourism paradise’.

An ex top official of the Airports and Aviation of Sri Lanka Ltd (AASL) which manages all non-military airports in the country, told the Sunday Observer that the Department of Immigration and the Tourist Board should be responsible for much of the failures in the management of the airport.

“We are trying to implement many things at the airport, specially at the Immigration counters. But the support from Immigration officers and Tourist Board officials is very minimal” said the officer who wished to remain anonymous.

Long queues

However, the newly appointed Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board and Sri Lanka Tourism Promotions Bureau, Kishu Gomes, refuted the charges against Sri Lanka Tourism.

“Complaints are about long queues. The Immigration Department has to do the job of clearing passengers. That is not a job for us,” he told the Sunday Observer.

“With the numbers increasing there may be certain improvements which need to be done. At our counters there is congestion and queues which we will certainly attend to. It is a space and of course, a manpower issue. We are in the process of recruiting some people for the Promotion Bureau counters. But we have not heard any complaints about our counters. The common complaint is about long queues at Immigration counters.

And not all those counters are open. Some counters are kept closed. There has to be an action plan in order to address that,” he added. Touts at BIA is another issue which the Authority has yet failed to address. Taxi drivers shouting and trying to convince tourists to use them for rides and people pretending to help carry baggage belonging to tourists and eventually asking money for a baggage delivery of 100 yards, are among the common incidents.

“In fact, Immigration is a separate problem. They think they have the law unto themselves. They are not even willing to discuss with the airport authorities about having more counters. We only have around 34 counters. But we need more than 50 counters” said the former AASL official.

According to him, once AASL suggested introducing the four officers lines ( zig zag) to immigration counters, which could reduce the congestion drastically, but Immigration officers at BIA had opposed it. “They said they want to see the passengers walking in line. I am wondering why only these officers in the world want to see passengers walking, when almost all other airports follow the four officer lines and it functions really well,” he added. However, the Controller Visa and Border Control at the Department of Immigration and Emigration, Chaaminda Hettiarachchi denied these allegations.

“We don’t have a shortage of man power. The main issue is the terminal capacity. Also it is wrong to say that we do not support the zigzag line because once we tried that. But due to different reasons it didn’t work and some of those reasons are from civil aviation,”Hettiarachchi said.

He suggested that Airport and Aviation Ltd could take steps to ease the congestion by managing aircraft movements to avoid too many passenger aircraft landing at the same time.

“Airport isn’t all about immigration. It is a multi-function operation comprising immigration, customs, aviation and quarantine. On the other hand, I do not accept the fact that BIA is one of the worst. I have travelled to many destinations and I consider that we are maintaining an airport at optimum level ” he added.

Day dreams

‘With the BIA forecasted passenger figures, it is expected to receive 15 million passengers by 2021 and according to the existing capacity, it can cause negative impact on the passenger experience creating a number of challenges’

- AASL Annual Report 2017

In a world, where the basics of almost everything could change in a matter of seconds, the concept of an airport has also changed and keeps changing. Nowadays, an airport is not just a place where aircraft land and take off. It is actually a destination filled with entertainment, dining, relaxation and many other leisure activities. The museum of Korean culture at Incheon International Airport, South Korea, the beer garden at Munich Airport in Germany, the gin distillery at Gatwick Airport in England and the aquarium at Vancouver International Airport in Canada are some of the best examples of this.

Singapore, the country which at one point regarded us as the best model for them and which country we now take as the role model for us, has the world’s best airport since 2013. Singapore Changi International airport is the best in the world and no doubt that the small but clever nation has well positioned their aviation industry as the service sector is the key of their economy.

Sri Lanka on the other hand, at present, is a service based economy but idiotic politicians and public officials trying to label the country as an agriculture based economy, have undoubtedly done irreversible damage to the service sector.

“I don’t know what exactly to say. But when I roam in Europe and come back to Sri Lanka through BIA, I feel that something is not right. I can’t explain it but ours is unlike other international airports. I guess it’s the Immigration staff. They treat Sri Lankans in a very different way. They talk nicely to tourists but are very rude to Sri Lankans. I have personally experienced that on a number of occasions,” said a young businessman who travels to Italy and Portugal frequently.

At present, approximately 200 aircraft land and take-off every day at BIA which means that every seven minutes an aircraft either lands or departs. “Building the second terminal has got delayed almost by five years so far because different governments came up with different ideas. At first they changed the roof design. Then somebody else came and changed the design again” said the AASL officer.

The previous government, in their ‘Hambantota first’ policy, constructed the second international airport of the country in Mattala, which later laid claim to be the world’s emptiest airport. Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) cost US$ 209 million whereas a better and more economical option would have been to have used that money to develop the second terminal at BIA, enhancing the capacity of BIA up to 15 million passengers per year.

Nevertheless, due to the delay of building a second terminal, the present government initiated a plan of setting up a pre-fabricated terminal. owing to a tender process dispute now the matter is in courts, further delaying the solution for the BIA passenger congestion.

All these management and decision making failures has plunged the BIA from heaven to hell. A few decades ago, BIA was one of the best in South Asia, while the Delhi airport in India was one of the worst (Delhi is now among the world’s top 100 airports).

It is also sad to see that the AASL is a profitable entity with around Rs. 9 billion profit alone last year. In such a context, BIA is nothing but a good example of milking the cow to death.

(Despite continuous attempts to contact Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, Arjuna Ranatunge and the Chairman of Airport and Aviation Ltd, Dhammika Ranatunge neither were available for comment)