Airports and our flight of fancy
Bangladesh seems to be in two minds when it comes to sorting out its priorities with regard to airports. On the one hand, there is the lucrative prospect of having new airports. The country is exploring paths to greater financial inclusion, and new airports, at least theoretically, can drive regional development by creating new jobs, attracting foreign investment, boosting tourism, and providing local businesses with a direct access to the global market.
There is, then, the challenge of managing the existing airports. Airport and airline management is a tricky job. The managers have to live up to the expectations of an ever-watchful clientele that would accept nothing less than a hassle-free travel and transportation experience.
Currently, according to the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh, there are three international airports: Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport (Dhaka), Shah Amanat International Airport (Chittagong), and Osmani International Airport (Sylhet). Add to that the five domestic airports, including Cox's Bazar Airport, Shah Makhdum Airport (Rajshahi), Jessore Airport, Saidpur Airport, and Barisal Airport.
Soon we may have several more airports that are either under construction or in the planning phase. Last week, it was reported that the prime minister would soon announce the site for the proposed Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib International Airport, a pet project of the current administration that has been in the works for quite some time and billed as the country's largest international airport. Apparently, "big" and "large" are the new catchwords in the race for development. The government has no intention of falling behind in this race.
So, between our visionary leap to new airports and the practical task of overhauling the poorly functioning airports that now exist, which one should take precedence? Is there a way to reconcile our priorities, or should we sacrifice one in favour of the other?
If client feedback is any indication, our airports, despite attracting greater passenger numbers than ever before, are in dire need of an overhaul in terms of the marketing, financial, operational and other factors associated with airport management. No wonder none of them have ever reported profits, which is only reasonable given their consistent poor performances.
Take Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport for example, the country's premier airport. HSIA has been frequently ranked among the worst airports in Asia. In 2014, air travel website sleepinginairports.net ranked it as the ninth worst airport in the region. Fast forward to 2016, it still occupies the same spot, although several airports previously placed in the list were able to lift them out of it by that time.
The site ranks airports based on their cleanliness, food quality, immigration/security, facilities, customer service, comfort, and "sleepability". Its Dhaka Airport Guide paints a bleak picture of what to expect from this airport: "This is an old, small-time, chaotic airport. Airport procedures are typically disorganised and inefficient. It seems like there are a lot of security guards, but the security is weak or non-existent."
It adds: "Many travellers have reported that airport staff and security have asked for handouts, bribes, etc., and some felt verbally harassed. Travellers overall report filthy and poorly maintained restrooms. Facilities are outdated and not up to international standards."
The site's 2017 survey of the worst Asian airports is yet to come out, but nothing has changed in the past year to convince us that the Dhaka airport will fare better this time around. Why is it that other countries were able to improve their performance and we couldn't? What's so fundamentally wrong with our airport management system that nothing good ever comes out of it?
Part of the reason why we have a ministry that combines civil aviation with tourism is their mutual dependence, or to put it differently, their connection to each other. Airports, among other things, play an important role in increasing inbound tourism. But those critical reviews and reports that swamp the internet can be very damaging for tourism in Bangladesh, and may even have a more lasting impact on our economy than we can imagine.
According to a recent estimate by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Bangladesh has been losing more than USD 1 billion worth of apparel business every year due to the inefficiency of airport authorities, as their delayed release of samples "irks the Western retailers."
The retailers, said BGMEA President Siddiqur Rahman, send garment samples to the Bangladeshi manufacturers through expensive air shipments and they expect quick execution of the work orders. "But the manufacturers do not get the samples from the airport timely," he said, adding that the samples from the airports are supposed to be received within 24 hours but it takes more than 10 days. (The Daily Star, June 25, 2017)
A less measured response came from Syed Nasim Manzur, the former president of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who during a conference earlier this year summed up his observation of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in a single word: "disaster." (Prothom Alo, March 19, 2017)
Commercial interests aside, there is a groundswell of feeling that our airports are equally, irrevocably hostile to the general travellers/visitors who must navigate their way through a labyrinth of impediments to get in or out of an airport. The list of impediments that they have to face is so staggering that Bangladesh can now legitimately claim to be an expert on how to turn airports into hell and vice versa.
The fact is, an airport is not just about a bunch of structures and flying vehicles. It is much more—a gateway to a country, just like a gateway to any place of residence. You can form an opinion about those who live inside just by looking at how well or poorly the gateway is made and kept. It will be in our own interest to keep our country's gateway clean and beautiful and welcoming to the visitors.
Correcting all that is wrong with our current airports is not an easy task, nor is it going to be acceptable to everyone involved with the system, but it's a necessary task. And someone needs to start cleaning up this mess. But building a new airport only to let it function within the same decaying, corruption-ridden system will be akin to killing its prospects even before its formation.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.