We need a ‘better’ airport | Pakistan Today

We need a ‘better’ airport

  • Not a bigger one

Islamabad’s new airport invokes the mental image of an eccentric sahib who visited London for the first time with his missus, and exclaimed, “Wah! Why can’t our country have an airport like this?”

This sahib made no attempt to comprehend the mechanics of this glorious airport. He noticed high ceilings and the expansive halls bathed in smart, soft lighting. He saw the art installations. He witnessed the elegance of the glass-and-steel walls, from which he enjoyed majestic views of the runway.

What the sahib did not notice, was the service. He did not see the cogs spinning beneath the surface, and all the effort being expended to ensure smooth operation. He did not have the opportunity, or perhaps not even the will, to see how the staff is trained to handle both ordinary and extraordinary situations; how maximum security is achieved through minimally invasive procedures; and how the airport and the airlines communicate for safe and efficient operation.

The eccentric sahib thus built for us a grand airport, with money we did not realise we had, which feels like a Lamborghini with a missing engine.

Approaching Islamabad International Airport for the first time is a surreal experience; like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz suspecting that she’s not in Kansas anymore. This airport complex is unlike anything we’ve seen on Pakistani soil, and it’s difficult to suppress one’s awe after a lifetime of suffering at the old Benazir Bhutto International Airport.

Even to a semi-educated layman, it is clear that the grandeur of the new airport counts for absolutely nothing if it is saddled with the legendary incompetency and failing strategies of CAA and PIA

That awe is short-lived. It isn’t long before the passenger comes face-to-face with a familiar incompetence, reminding little Dorothy that she is still very much rotting away in Kansas. One realises that the new airport is essentially the old airport with larger dimensions, with precisely the same failing systems that we’ve long bemoaned; like a state-of-the-art laptop computer running on Windows 95.

Miraculously, not a single man or woman in the Civil Aviation Authority understands the proper function of a rope queue. In any reasonably managed airport of this scale, you may find a large, snaking queuing area, from where passengers are called one by one to, say, open check-in counters. A clear space between the desks and the red line in front of the queuing area, allows for passengers who have already been processed, to conveniently exit the area along the side. What we have here instead, are throngs of passengers self-organising, with marginal success, into multiple queues in front of each check-in counter. One finds a large pool of humans and luggage trolleys smooshed together, with no space for processed passengers to leave. The officers behind in the counters yell at the crowds to make way for those exiting the area, and then mutter under their breath how inconsiderate our ‘awam’ is. The idea of creating a sensible system for the ‘awam’, occurs to no high-ranking employee at this airport.

The rope queues are certainly there; no expense has seemingly been spared on equipment. But they are being employed simply for the purpose of making boundaries among various sections of the airport.

The most outrageous system in the new airport, which has achieved much notoriety through social media, is baggage handling system. Countless people have complained about waiting absurdly long to collect their booked luggage at the carousel, but I had hoped that the complaints were exaggerated. I did not fully understand this problem until recently when I personally had to stand roughly two hours at the baggage claim area, my aching eyes waiting for a glimpse of my silver-grey suitcase. This ordeal, after a long, uncomfortable and unsanitary PIA flight from London, was harder on other passengers than it was on me. One fellow passenger, running tragically late for her own father’s funeral, wept uncontrollably before CAA personnel begging for an iota of competence on their part. We heard the concerned staff member conveniently pass the blame to PIA.

A few weeks ago, a video of the same airport had gone viral on social media, showing frustrated passengers climbing on top of the carousels and yelling through the opening in the wall from which luggage is expected to emerge. Expectedly, the video was circulated as evidence of Pakistani people’s allegedly uncivilised nature. Having been through this limbo, I strongly empathise with these passengers.

We are all content with using the Pakistani ‘awam’ as a giant repository for blame. Problems supposedly happen because the ‘awam’ is impatient, rowdy, unintelligent, and uncivilised. Few among us are bothered to question the broken systems that provoke rowdiness. Institutions are more than pleased to ignore their responsibilities, and blame an exhausted family with screaming infants for not having the patience to wait indefinitely by the baggage carousel. As always, profits are to be moved upstairs, and blame is to be scattered among the suffering masses below.

Islamabad International Airport is a hollow mass running at a small fraction of its full capacity; yet already afflicted with inconceivable conundrums. This two-runway airport cannot use both runways at the same time due to a serious design flaw. It has already been flooded. Processing times, particularly at baggage claim, are inhuman.

Even to a semi-educated layman, it is clear that the grandeur of the new airport counts for absolutely nothing if it is saddled with the legendary incompetency and failing strategies of CAA and PIA.

It’s time we admit that it’s not the size that matters – it’s the service that counts.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.