Saturday, July 05, 2008

Bengaluru International Airport

After a rather long hiatus, I'm back. For good.

Over the last two months, I've been a mute spectator to the criticism and brickbats thrown at the spanking new Bengaluru International Airport (BIA). Newspaper dailies in Bangalore would carry comments from readers, sometimes applauding BIA, and most of the time criticizing several aspects of it. And as I have learned over the last two weeks, believe not what you are told, but only what you see for yourself.

I made two trips to BIA over the last two weeks, one for an international departure in the middle of the night, and another for a domestic flight early in the evening. I shall recount my experience travelling to and at the airport.

Towards the end of June, my mother left to London, and being the prodigal son I am, I went to drop her. As we drove towards the airport from Indiranagar at 2AM, I was overcome by the peaceful air that envelops the city at night. The roads were empty but for the occasional BMTC Vayu Vajras brilliantly lit up, moving like the Knight Bus from the Harry Potter series. As soon as we hit the Outer Ring Road, we were met with a dozen Meru Taxis headed to and from the airport. We had company!!

We soon crossed the Hebbal Flyover and were on our way towards Devanahalli. And this is where reality struck. The roads were simply wonderful. 3 Lanes on each side, with brilliant reflectors embedded in the road surface. The streetlights decided they'd rather not travel the 30Km distance to the airport, and stopped a short while after the Hebbal flyover. While the road was dark, the reflectors did an excellent job. There was light traffic on the road and it was simply a pleasure driving to the airport. As we pulled closer to the airport, the Trumpet interchange appeared. The interchange is simply marvellous and the road from the interchange to the airport is simply heavenly. With excellent lighting and road markings, you lose all memories of the otherwise horrid Bangalore roads.

In the distance, the ATC could be seen looming over the lit up horizon. As we approached the ATC, we were greeted by the BIA Fuel Farm, Cargo complex and a dozen other brilliantly lit buildings.

Directions are displayed on large boards, in clearly printed text. We drove through the Terminal and dropped my Mum off at the curbside. I then drove around the airport, a little disoriented, looking for the entrance to the parking.. What I later found out is that you can park your vehicle for upto 15 minutes at a drop-off zone. You're given a ticket when you enter the zone, and you return it when you're leaving. If you were parked for more than 15 minutes, you are charged appropriately. The airport has 2 general parking lots, 1 long term parking lot and a premium lot. Valet parking is available, however, since I'm the valet in my family, I did this myself. I parked my car at the P3 parking lot and walked towards the terminal. It wasn't a huge terminal, but looked beautiful. I live 5 minutes from the old HAL airport, and after driving for 45 minutes to get to BIA, I felt as proud as ever looking at Bangalore's latest.

As I walked closer, some planning errors became evident. For instance ramps to the sidewalks in the parking areas are far apart. Unless you know the parking lot very well, you will surely miss the ramps and will most definitely have a tough time with your baggage trolley. In addition to this, there are several obstructions in what could otherwise have been good sidewalks. I'm sure issues such as these will be ironed out over time.

The terminal building was simply amazing. The glass fascade looked superb and I was taken aback for a few minutes. Mum soon passed through the security at the Departure terminal and went into the terminal building. It was a smooth process, however in my opinion additional gates at the departure terminal entrance would have increased efficiency.

Soon it became evident that the seating outside the terminal was simply insufficient. The heavy winds blowing through the Terminal were unsettling at times. My roving eye also noticed the absence of CCTV cameras in sufficient numbers. There wasn't a significant security presence at the terminal either, which simply led me to wonder how BIAL plans to monitor the crowds outside the airport and what security measures are in place to avoid an ugly incident.

Check-in took 15minutes and the mandatory User Development Fee for International travellers flying out of BIA before 1st July 2008 was paid at a small non-descript counter at one corner of the terminal. The seating inside the terminal building on the ground floor did not seem sufficient. There were 4 rows of seats at either end of the check-in hall, each of which could seat a maximum of a 100 people at most.

We soon left the Terminal building as Mum made her way through Security check. The walkways are well lit, however, in-order to get from the drop-off zone, or the parking lot, one must cross the road in front of the terminal. I overheard a BIAL official saying that the pedestrian crossing on the road was the cause of traffic jams each day. Not a good thing I thought. We were out of the airport after a little disorientation at the parking lot due to a missing sign which is at a crucial point in the exit from lot P3.

2 days later I had to take a flight to Bombay. I decided to take the bus this time. I logged onto and booked myself onto a BMTC Vayu Vajra (Volvo) headed to the airport. I also learned that conductors on the Non-AC airport buses often told passengers that the Vayu Vajra is running half an hour late in order to capture passengers waiting for the higher fare Volvos. I had a reservation, and had selected my seats as well so I waited. The bus arrived 5 minutes early and quickly departed. The buses are nicely done up with luggage racks, AC vents and music too :) The bus driver, a cousin of Williams F1 driver Montoya (I presume) got us to the airport in exactly an hour.

As I had over two hours to spare, I decided to walk all around the airport. Bored, I decided to check in. I walked into the Departure terminal and walked around checking out the self-checkin kiosks. There was a serious shortage of seating in the Check-in hall and this needs an immediate remedy. After a coffee at the CCD there, I checked in, and with my boarding pass moved to the first floor towards security check.

A minute later, my check was done. The CISF officer suspected that my innocent Nokia E61i was a bomb. After a little poking and prodding, he realized it was a phone. I was on my way :) There are lots of retail outlets in the departure hall. The Crossword book store is an excuse of a bookstore with just a few shelves. Just not enough for an airport bookstore! The Domestic and International departures are split into different halls. The international departure hall has an Illy coffee bar and other nice things. I, being a domestic flier, settled in at a nice little cafe. A coffee, a sandwich and a fruit salad later I was full and found myself a nice comfy seat.

Over the next 1 hour, I was kept entertained by this wonderful comedian that BIAL hired to keep passenger morale high. No, not Russell Peters but some unknown woman with the most brilliant English and pronunciation I had ever heard. Yes, she was the announcer and while she requested "Customers travelling with childrens and infents...." I rolled on the floor laughing my proper Indian butt off.

Soon it was time to board, and this took place quite rapidly. As our aircraft was parked away from the terminal, we were ferried to it in a (you guessed it), Volvo bus. We boarded and were off to Bombay soon after.

When I landed back at BIA a few days later, I was in for a surprise. I had been told that baggage takes ages to arrive and that I should expect to wait for a good amount of time. I was surprised to enter the arrival hall and see 3 baggage claim belts in front of me. Another three in a central, partitioned area, and several others in the International baggage claim. My suitcase arrived a few minutes later and I was out of the terminal less than 15 minutes after we had landed. I quickly boarded a Volvo, handling the conductors hounding me with fluent Kannada. I was at Indiranagar about an hour later.

The absence of police on Bangalore's roads is conspicuous. Patrolling must be increased else international passengers can easily be victimized at drop off points. Police take note!

There were plenty of things that need to be done to improve the airport. For example,

  1. Sidewalks must be redesigned for the convenience of passengers with trolleys
  2. Seating outside and inside the terminal must be increased drastically
  3. Greater security presence and monitoring equipment must be put in place
  4. A helpdesk must be set up near the Airport Bus Depot. I saw BMTC conductors harassing passengers to board their buses. For a Bangalorean who knows the bus routes, this isn't an issue but for a first timer in the city, this can be a harrowing experience. Conductors must be instructed and warned against standing away from their buses. A well staffed helpdesk near the bus depot must be set up to assist passengers travelling on the BMTC buses. A prominently displayed route map for each bus at the entrance of the bus depot would help as well. The maps inside the depot are not clearly visible and by the time passengers see them, conductors have already hounded them.
  5. Better trained announcers would add to the professionalism that is expected of an international airport.

On the whole, however, BIA is an excellent addition to the city of Bangalore. I live 5 minutes away from the old HAL airport, and am proud everytime I arrive at BIA even though it means an hour long commute from home. Its simply because one look at BIA and you're convinced that it is for the future. Regardless of how many comparisons are made to airports at Hyderabad, or Singapore, nothing can compare to the pride that fills my heart when i look at BIA. The future of our city lies here, in this glass structure built from the hopes and dreams of millions of Bangaloreans. Like me.

Some might argue that the airport is simply too small for current traffic volumes. However, the full potential of this airport will only be unleashed once the second runway and terminal become operational in a few years. Bangalore and its new airport have a long way to go, and BIA has just checked in.


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