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Why I hate airports

I find it hard to believe that there was ever a time when I looked forward to going to airports.

And yet, strangely enough, there was indeed such a time: I used to regard airports as exciting places.


I remember, as a schoolboy, looking forward to checking in at Heathrow at the start of the school vacation because it meant that I was going back to my family in Mumbai. I remember, as a young journalist, arriving at the old Cochin airport on Willingdon Island, driving the short distance to the Malabar Hotel next door and sitting down to a breakfast of crisp medu vadas, while dolphins gambolled in the lagoon.


   There was a time when airports were festive places. In the 1970s, if you went to the departure hall of the old Santa Cruz airport in Mumbai, you would find family groups who had come to see off young men or women off to America to find a new life/to take up a job/to study/to get married. The delegation would bless the departing passenger. Garlands would be proffered. Mithai would be distributed. And licensed airport photographers (Do they still exist, I wonder?) would make them line up for group photos.


   When the son or daughter of the family returned on a visit to Mumbai, the process would be reversed. Relatives would arrive with welcome garlands, there would be tears of joy and the returning hero who had worn a tie and jacket on the flight for the benefit of airport photographers would sweat happily into the warm embraces of his overjoyed relatives.


   The idea of an airport as a place for tearful farewells and happy reunions is a global one. The opening scene of Richard Curtis’s Love Actually is set at Heathrow’s arrival area as families and friends welcome passengers with hugs and affection.


   I don’t know if Curtis could shoot that scene any longer. When I land at Heathrow these days, all I see are bored limo drivers holding up name cards. Sometimes I see the odd passenger-relative who is looking worried because it is taking so long for the person he or she is waiting for to emerge. (“But the flight landed three hours ago”).


   And I certainly don’t find airports exciting, romantic and happy places.


   In fact, I hate them.


   If you forced me to think hard about it, I could probably find two or three happy airport memories from the last 20 years. And that’s about it.


   And I am one of the lucky ones. Because I travel more often than most people (only air crew travel more than I do, I imagine) I have learned how to negotiate airports. By virtue of having jobs that ensure that I usually turn left when I enter a plane, I get to carry platinum frequent flier cards, stand in priority queues, get my luggage faster more than most people, wait in lounges and — if it is one of the airlines that I frequently use — get perks like the odd buggy ride to the gate and get occasionally pampered by airline staff.


   And still, I hate airports.


   What, you ask, do I loathe about them?


   Well, if I am travelling to the West, it is nearly always the same thing: The assumption by airlines, airport owners and government officials that they are doing you a favour by letting you use their airports to enter their countries. Even if they treat you like dirt, you should be grateful.


"New York (JFK) is even worse. So are many European airports. Everyone knows this. Everyone writes about it. But no Western government cares."

   The single biggest obstacle faced by any Indian going to the West is Immigration. Passengers will tell you how they are regarded with suspicion and hostility by Immigration officers who act as though they are convinced that the arriving Indians will throw away their jobs and homes and careers in India to become waiters at some curry shop in a Western country.


   I have been unusually lucky over the last year: The only people who have interrogated me like that are German Immigration officers (though perhaps they were only following orders). Italian immigration staff can be lazy and inefficient but are usually not deliberately hostile. The French are matter-of-fact but efficient. On the other hand, American inspectors are probably made to spend a month training with Rottweilers so they can imitate their behaviour at airports.


   Apart from the hostility, what really annoys me is that Western governments don’t care how long passengers wait at their airports. It is not that there are too many of us; it is that there are too few immigration officers.


   Let’s take the UK as an example. Rishi Sunak claims to be good at math. He should know that if 22 out of 35 immigration countries at Heathrow are unmanned (as they were when I travelled there a fortnight ago), it means that his government is simply not doing its job. Delays of three hours at Heathrow are not uncommon. I know people who have taken five hours to clear Immigration. All because they won’t increase the staff strength.


   New York (JFK) is even worse. So are many European airports. Everyone knows this. Everyone writes about it. But no Western government cares.


   You have to ask yourself: If every Asian country can hire enough Immigration officers, why is it so difficult for wealthy Western countries to do the same thing?


   Then, there are the airport owners. If you want to know how India differs from the West, look at how privatisation has made Indian airports so much better. And how it has destroyed Western airports.


   Heathrow is now widely regarded as the worst in the world. Its owners cut corners, pare staff levels to the minimum and charge for every little thing: If a car comes to drop you on departure (just a drop, not parking) Heathrow will charge £5. It routinely screws passengers over to make huge profits. Small wonder then that the Sunday Times called it “an ATM with runways attached”.


   So far at least, regulators have prevented the owners of Indian airports from going down this route. But yes, there are problems. Airport owners resist having to pay for more X-ray machines, so security queues remain too long. Airlines have been told to surrender their lounges at many terminals so that the airport can run its own ugly lounge and make more money for itself.


   If you travel out of a metropolitan airport in India, you will notice that there is always a long queue to get into the lounge. Why is this? Well, partly because airport owners are too stingy to open more desks to process passengers who want to use the lounge. But it also tells you something about the airport: The departure area is so dismal that people would rather stand in a long line for the lounge rather than go to the gate or to an airport restaurant.


   Ah the restaurants! There has been a debate on Twitter recently about why the food at some Indian airports is so highly priced. The explanation: Because you are paying for the convenience of eating it at the airport. This is the biggest load of cobblers I have heard. The real reason it is expensive is because the airport knows that you have no choice. If you are hungry, you have to eat and you have to pay those prices. So, airports charge exorbitant rents, forcing restaurants to charge high prices. It’s an abuse of unregulated monopoly power, nothing more, nothing less.


   But for all this, Indian airports are still better than the West. There is not a single airport in the West that I would happily travel to. And Asian airports are slipping. At Changi, long my favourite airport, the tech is now old. The last time I travelled, the eye-reading machines at Immigration did not function smoothly (They sent me to a waiting area where, when it was finally my turn, another machine worked perfectly). The passport-scan machine is one of those primitive devices that swallows up your whole passport. Compare that to Dubai, where the arrival scan takes seconds and you don’t even have to scan your passport on the way out.


   But for frequent travellers, there can be the odd compensation. This time in London, on my way out, Air India offered me a golf cart to the gate. I accepted it gratefully, only to discover that it deposited me in a back area near the gate where, recognising that it had been my birthday the day before, Air India staff led by Naveen Sikka had organised a cake. As I cut it, blushing with embarrassment, they all sang Happy Birthday.


   Sometimes, a little bit of love can make even Heathrow seem not so bad!




  • Asha 30 Jul 2023

    Nice article ..
    SFO immigration had been unusually kind n friendly to Namha recently.. just asked purpose of visit n if she carried any seeds.. welcome bk the lady said ( the last visit namha made was exactly 2 decades bk)

    You r so right abt y the shops price food high in airports. Airports are all abt looong queues inside n outside. More counters can be arranged for manage long queues. More lounges of diff levels for those who wait long hours bef flts or in layovers. Paid for lounges for ease

Posted On: 28 Jul 2023 11:30 AM
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