Improving the Dhaka airport experience
I dread landing at Dhaka airport. I put in a prayer just before landing because I know that regardless of the carrier I am travelling on, the landing is going to be rough. Our national airport has only one runway. Why can't we maintain it better?
As the plane taxies toward the terminal, the first impression of a visitor to Bangladesh is unfavourable. Airport grounds are an eyesore, with yawning ditches and unkempt grounds. Can't we spend some money making the grounds a little aesthetic?
As one approaches the terminal building, three signs welcome the visitor to "Hazrat Shahjalal Airport" – in Bangla, English and Arabic. Bangla and English are understandable, but what is the Arabic sign doing there? I have tremendous respect for Arabic-speakers, but no one speaks Arabic in Bangladesh, and therefore, that sign does not belong there. Arabic language must not be conflated with Islam, which many of us love.
Before deplaning, I make sure that I won't have to use the bathroom facilities for the one to two hours that I will spend in the terminal building. The stench of the bathrooms is overpowering! One shudders to think of the reaction of foreigners. Is it too much to ask for the bathrooms to be maintained properly so that it is useable?
As I entered the terminal building after a long flight in the morning of December 10, 2010 (the same day Shah Rukh Khan came to perform in a concert), I was greeted by a swarm of mosquitoes. They not only feasted on my blood, they also injected something into my blood stream, which I was to find out seven days later.
The immigration area is a mess, with no one directing traffic. People make a beeline for the line they think is the shortest, regardless of whether the line is meant for them. There is little appreciation for the etiquette of queuing. One year, as I stood in line, a restless young man stood behind me. I noticed that he was gradually attempting to overtake me. Eventually, he did! I had the muscle power to shove him back, but that is not who I am.
Instead, I told him: Apne to amaar pechhone chhilen! (You were behind me!) He was ready with the perfect retort Na, amra ek shathe chhilam! (No, we were side by side!) I was thinking that if this resourceful young man had utilised his talents properly, he could have been somebody. Unfortunately, things did not end well for him. As he approached the counter, the immigration officer scolded him: Ekhane keno ashechhen? Bangladesh counter-e jaan!" ("Why are you here? Go to the Bangladesh counter!")
Luggage handling is still primitive at Dhaka airport. After a long flight, the last thing passengers want is an interminable delay in gathering their luggage. On one occasion, after about 45 minutes of waiting, I asked a luggage attendant when our luggage would come. He enquired where I was coming from. On learning that we came from New York, he replied in a spiteful tone, Shob sheshe ashbe! (Will come out last!)
As we depart the airport, I always wonder why so many people are milling around the terminal. Don't they have anything to do? During my last visit to Bangladesh, this December/January, everyone congratulated me for covering the 10 miles from the airport to my wife's residence in Dhanmondi in just over an hour – the same time it took me to cover the 70 miles from our residence to JFK airport in New York!
Seven days after mosquitoes bit me at Dhaka airport on December 10, 2010, I came down with high fever (104 degrees F) and bone pain. As a marathoner, I have tremendous tolerance for pain. I took Tylenol to bring down the temperature, but did not complain about the pain. After three days, the fever and the pain suddenly went away. I am cured, I thought. That's when the hemorrhaging began! Blood began seeping from the pores in my hands, chest and legs. There was a golf-ball size lump of blood inside my cheeks! I was rushed to Square Hospital and diagnosed with Hemorrhagic Dengue.
It took me a year to fully recover. Since dengue mosquitoes are active only during the morning, these days I make sure that I reach Dhaka airport in the evening!
There is only one security checking station for departing passengers entering the terminal building, resulting in waiting for 30 to 45 minutes. There should be more stations. As I was waiting to board the plane, the personnel at the final security checking were complaining about too many mosquitoes in the terminal. I asked one of them why they didn't spray the terminal building with mosquito-killers. His answer was revealing: Boro shahebra to ekhane ashen na. Onara VIP jaiga diye jaan. Okhane mosha nai (The big shots don't come this way. There are no mosquitoes in the VIP area where they go!").
Here are my suggestions for improving the Dhaka airport experience: Once a month, late at night, spray the whole terminal building with mosquito-killers, and after an hour, pump out the contaminated air; install at least three security checking stations for passengers entering the terminal; install modern equipment to expedite luggage handling; authorise some officials to handle traffic in the immigration area; maintain the bathrooms so that they don't stink; remove the welcome sign in Arabic; beautify the grounds around the taxiways; maintain the runway so that the landings are smooth.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar.