The consistent chaos that is Dhaka airport
Airports are the most fascinating places in the world. This forced congregation of total strangers from all corners of the world, rushing off to destinations as exotic as Zanzibar or Casablanca—isn't it just wonderful? Isn't it amazing that when we are at the airport, we are all in sync, looking at the same monitors together, all worrying about whether we will make it to the gate on time, everyone trying to find the best spot to sit at the waiting area, everyone watching everyone else rushing, laughing, talking, trying to sleep in the uncomfortable chairs, attempting to soothe screaming, sleep-deprived children, eating the same sandwiches and having the same longing for a nice, cosy bed?
Oh, wait! That was in the old days and in other international airports. So, what's it like at our own dear Dhaka Airport (Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport), especially during the Covid-19 era and at a time when flights are only allowed between 8am and 12am, as it's closed from 12am to 8am due to renovation purposes?
Well, to put it simply, it's the centre of total chaos and mayhem. There are lines—unruly ones, of course—just about everywhere: starting from the entry point with cars and microbuses creating three lanes trying to get into that one little gate all at once, to the line outside the airport departure area, lines to get Covid tests verified, lines at the check-in counters, lines at the restrooms, lines to get into the immigration area, and the regular lines outside the boarding gates. Now that all the flights (over a 100) have been crammed into 16 hours instead of 24, at any given time there will be thousands of people at Dhaka airport with these eternal queues being constantly broken by "considerate" travellers who think nothing of just shoving their heavy trolleys right into the middle of the queue, impervious to the dirty looks or even curses inflicted on them.
Trolley battles are common, with men running to the trolley lines treading on toes, elbowing out women, children, airport cats—anyone who may come in their way—and then getting into brawls with other contestants until the most aggressive one wins the trophy of a trolley and zooms away in triumph. The reason for this savage behaviour is simple: there are just not enough trolleys for everyone, regardless of all the assurances—was it 2,500 extra trolleys that were promised?—given by the authorities. There is also no airport staff controlling the crowd and making sure that people know where to go or just behave like decent human beings.
Many of the flights are to the Middle East, so there are swarms of worried migrant workers who have absolutely no idea about which counters they should go to or what forms they must fill up or even how to ask for help at the fancy help desk. Unsurprisingly, our greatest remittance earners, and the backbone of our steady economic growth, are treated with utter disdain and apathy. Why there are no designated airport staff to guide and help them go through the formalities is anyone's guess. After all, authorities have only had about a few decades to figure this out.
Strangely, while we are being told that we cannot hold public events and must show our Covid vaccination certificates at restaurants, in addition to the "No Mask, No Entry" policy at all venues and establishments, at Dhaka airport, Covid health protocols are optional.
While people are running around trying to get their Covid test results verified—why this can't be done during check-ins like everywhere else in the world is a mystery—most people at the airport, including the staff, either wear their masks with their noses exposed or have no masks on whatsoever! There are also those who believe that the mask itself must be saved from germs, so whenever they feel the urge to sneeze or cough, they lower their masks, eject all their germs out to the world, and put their masks back on! Even the salespeople at the snack kiosks feel it's okay to keep their masks under the nose, so that they can breathe (perhaps even sneeze a little) into the chicken patties and coffee before serving them.
That non-existent phenomenon called aesthetics in this airport perfectly complements this shabby show. The pathetic excuse for a snack area is a dusty corner with uncomfortable chairs and tables next to a dirty tile mural with a few small cupboards put up against them, apparently to stow away backpacks belonging to, who knows, the snack bar employees? The tables are so close together that you can practically hear everything your neighbours are saying—which wouldn't be such a bad thing if it weren't for the fact that they are also following the "no mask" etiquette, and again, no one is there to enforce any health protocol.
Outside the airport building is the maze of lanes surrounding bizarre, unseemly steel sculptures, and a car park that resembles a garbage dump with empty plastic bottles and packets of chips strewn here and there on the grimy floors and the uppermost floor being treated as a public toilet.
Everyone knows that travel these days has become a stressful, unenjoyable ordeal. But for those who must go through Dhaka airport—whether during arrival or departure—the trauma is on a whole new level. Unless, of course, you belong to the VIP or VVIP category.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is senior deputy editor and the head of the editorial team at The Daily Star.