What is the most important difference between Asian airports and those in the West? Yes, infrastructure is one factor. Most Asian airports are newer and better than European or American airports.
But there is something even more significant: Stress levels. Try flying out of Dubai, Singapore, Bangkok or Abu Dhabi. It won’t necessarily be fun: Airports are almost never happy places . But it won’t be stressful.
Consider now how you feel departing from or arriving at London, Washington DC, Frankfurt or even (though it is not really western) Sydney.
The one word I associate with all of those airports is stress. You tense up the moment you arrive. And even after you have queued up for over an hour at immigration, you are still slightly nervous before you go to the immigration desk. Will the officer find something wrong with your visa? Will you be subjected to an interrogation? Sometimes at western airports they make you feel that they are doing you a favour just by letting you in.
When you leave, it is often as tense. The lines at security are so long that you worry if you will miss your flight even though you checked in well in time. Airline staff will make it clear they don’t care whether you get on the flight or not: They would much rather just go home and watch TV. Even the boarding process will be like herding cattle into a pen.
Why does this happen? It’s nothing to do with infrastructure or any objective criteria. More Indians stay on illegally in Southeast Asian countries or in Dubai than do in European countries or in Australia. And yet the immigration officers in Asian countries don’t treat every Indian passport holder as a potential illegal immigrant.
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The difference has nothing to do with facts or logic.
It has to do with attitudes.
In the West, people who work at airports do not regard it as part of their job to make you feel comfortable or welcome. They hate the jobs they are doing and some of that hatred spills over to their attitude to passengers. Their bosses are worse. At such private airports as Heathrow, they have cut staffing levels to increase profits. And at American airports, they don’t bother to hire enough immigration officers because they believe that if you want to come to their country, you better be prepared to spend hours in a queue.
This has got worse after the pandemic. But even before that, I remember an immigration queue in Washington DC that snaked out of the hall and onto the tarmac because it was taking so long to clear passengers.
And why was it taking so long?
Because the majority of the immigration desks were unmanned.
In Rome, at the height of the summer, I once watched passengers faint while waiting in the arrival hall because the few immigration officers on duty, worked slowly, took cigarette breaks and chatted among themselves.
You would never hear such stories about Asian airports. At Dubai, they have used technology so well that you can leave the immigration desk in seconds once they have scanned your face. On the way out, you don’t need to even face an immigration officer. A scan is enough. Even at Bangkok, which is relatively low-tech, staff are polite and work swiftly.
It is tempting to attribute the difference in attitudes to racism. Except that at most western airports, there are more and more people of colour manning immigration desks, handling security or checking in passengers
So, it isn’t simply white privilege at work. My worst experience at a German airport was with an airline staff member who was clearly of South Asian origin. At security queues in much of the West, they select passengers for ‘random extra checks. By some coincidence, a significant proportion of those put through this ‘random’ process are brown people. But the people who insist on treating you suspiciously are also black or brown.
So ultimately it comes down to attitude. The ruling principle is: It’s okay to treat all passengers badly and yes, you can kick people from the Third World around a little bit.
Where does India fit into this? My sense is that our airports are going through a transition. In the old days, airports were run by cops. The guy who checked your passport at Immigration was a cop. The people who frisked you at security were cops.
The cops did not like the job. I remember being so angered by the way a cop was harassing other passengers at Delhi airport immigration that I told him I would complain to his superiors. He was unfazed. He hated the airport posting, he said. If I complained, he would be grateful : He would then get posted back to a police station where he would be much happier. (And much richer.)
Because cops resented not being able to take bribes at airports, they found ways to make money anyway. At Kolkata airport they would shake down poor Bangladeshi labourers who were in transit. At Mumbai airport security I was horrified to see a cop take money from a passenger. I complained to his inspector who threatened to not let me board my flight. I wrote about it and to the credit of the Mumbai police, they instituted an inquiry (I gave evidence) and sacked the cops.
In recent years, the cops have been packed off. The new immigration department has many competent officers. There are some dullards who don’t know how to type, take too long to process passengers and can be needlessly off hand. But each year I seem to see less and less of the duffers.
Customs can still be a problem. I have had very good experiences (every single time over the last several years) at Delhi airport where officials are sharp (they catch smugglers) but take care to be polite. Mumbai can be a nightmare. I regularly hear stories about passengers being bullied and shaken down. I can’t tell you how accurate these stories are, but they are worrying.
In my limited experience this is not true of customs at other airports (Bangalore is always excellent) so it may just be that Mumbai customs officials are encouraged by the fawning media coverage afforded to the likes of Sameer Wankhede who, when he was posted at the airport, was lauded by journalists for harassing actresses and other passengers.
Security all over India, under CISF, is better than it was under the local police though there are training issues. Most of the jawans/constables have no experience of police work or interacting with the public The force’s full name is Central Industrial Security Force and it was created to guard industrial establishments.
So its staff can seem out of their depth and take very long (as they did when the automatic tray system was instituted) to understand basic systems and this can cause delays. Some of the younger ones unfortunately, are wannabe cops and want to throw their weight around.
Last weekend at Mumbai airport, the CISF man at the X-ray told me I had forgotten to take my Kindle out of my bag. It was my fault and I apologised. But a younger, ruder guy then stepped in and told me I now had to take out every metal object from my bag: my glasses, my pens etc.
I told him that this was not in the manual. At this, he said “What do you know about rules? Who are you to tell me?” I explained patiently that I had been writing about airport security for a while and this was not normal. This drove him to new levels of fury. “There are no rules. It is up to me. I have to be satisfied. I can stop you from boarding the flight.”
This was an ego thing. He removed one pair of glasses from my bag (leaving behind two other clearly visible pairs), ran my bag through the X-ray again then dismissed me mightily . I asked him where his inspector was so I could complain. He pointed to his right and laughed.
Later I saw why he was laughing. The new arrangements for CISF security at Mumbai airport are such that if you pass through the business class X Ray you cannot have access to the inspector or make a complaint.
This is a small instance of no great consequence, but it shows us how attitudes must be carefully monitored to prevent bullying of passengers. If the CISF has abandoned any kind of supervisory or complaints mechanism, then it reflects very badly on the guy who runs security at Mumbai airport. And it explains why his men behave so badly.
Moreover, unlike almost every other department at the airport which responds to tweets, the CISF is so arrogant that it ignores all complaints on social media.
And that finally is the problem. There are bad apples in every organisation. It’s not the fault of the CISF. No force can be perfect. But if there is no superior and no complaints area, then eventually, it will harm the whole organisation and the bad apples will spoil the rest of the basket.
A few years ago, an Air India staffer threatened to stop me from boarding a flight to London on some bogus ‘no-visa’ grounds. (I had a certificate of entitlement from the UK government attached to my passport).
It may have been a shakedown and the staffer backed down only when he realised that I would raise a stink. I wrote about it in this column. Hardeep Puri who was then the civil aviation minister, read the article and personally ordered an inquiry. I never faced that kind of potential shakedown after that.
So ultimately it is all about monitoring attitudes to passengers. Passengers have to be given the opportunity to complain. And action needs to be taken against those who misuse their authority.
That’s what they do in Singapore. In Dubai. And at all the best airports. That’s the model we should follow in India.