Being a non-VIP at Dhaka airport is no fun
The adviser to the prime minister on private industry and investment, Salman F Rahman, recently expressed his dissatisfaction about the way our airport in Dhaka has been handling passengers, referring to allegations of staff members taking bribes and harassing them. This is music to the ears of non-VIP travellers. FINALLY, someone from the high echelons of the government has taken notice of the woes of us little people.
It may be of interest for some to want to know why, after all these years of innumerable news reports and complaints by passengers about the utter chaos that is Dhaka airport, suddenly the government has taken notice—that, too, not the civil aviation minister—and only after the prime minister instructed her adviser to pay a "surprise visit." But let's leave that conundrum for the time being. Instead, let's look at a single instance of what goes on inside this airport.
At the cost of making my readers roll their eyes at another airport rant, I shall rehash a recent experience. The passengers of Singapore Airlines SQ 446 on May 8 were greeted by the usual hullabaloo after entering the immigration area. It is like a song you hate, on repeat. It is a free-for-all show with some passengers rushing to the immigration queue and others being a little hesitant as a staff member shouts, "Shobar health form fill up korte hobe (Everyone must fill up the health form)." Health form? The only form given on the plane was the Customs Declaration Form. You see some passengers feverishly filling up forms at a counter; when you go there, you find no spare forms. You ask a staff member where you can get this precious form, and he lackadaisically pulls one out from his back pocket. Whether it is out of pity or in the hope of a little tea money, you can never tell, but are nonetheless thankful when he offers to help fill up the form. He writes down all the details of your passport, but for some reason does not even bother to ask for your Covid vaccination certificate to write down when you took your first and second doses or enquire whether you have any symptoms. Interesting. So why are we filling a health form, exactly? Nobody knows.
You then get to the counter to submit the form in exchange for a little slip that you must present to the immigration officer. Apparently, all this could have been avoided if you had done this online. Of course, nobody will ever tell you that—not the travel agent, not the airline crew on the plane. After finally reaching the immigration line with that precious parchment, you must wait for the immigration officer to take his sweet time to go through each passenger. On this particular day, a couple reached the counter only to be told that they could not go through until they filled out—guess what?—the health form! Being a woman with aggressive PR skills, the wife managed to convince the unsmiling immigration officer to let them go. That's Bangalee tenacity for you!
If you thought the worst was over, think again. Another shock awaits when you sit for almost an hour with no sign of your suitcases with the characteristic yellow and green ribbons doing the rounds on the conveyer belt. You look at all the foreigners watching the carousel with resigned faces as the minutes tick by. A little bird (obviously a staff member) informs us that the reason for the more-than-usual delay is because there has been a change in shift of the Biman staff handling luggage, and you were part of the unlucky crowd to have arrived during the lapse between the two shifts. I feel embarrassed on behalf of my country when I look at the Korean woman looking expectantly at the carousel and feel obliged to tell her that it will be a while. During our brief encounter, she says, "There is so much mismanagement!" and I tell her she should complain with no clue as to whom she can complain to. "No use complaining; we just stay silent and wait—this is how it is all the time here," she remarks. I feel defeated and wonder what foreigners think of us when they go through this horrendous experience every time they travel. I feel like telling them: this is not how we are—we are better than this; things were better before; things will get better.
Of course, I can't, because I am no longer sure. I don't, for instance, understand why, before the flight to Singapore on April 28, we had to wait over two hours at the gate because the Danish Crown Princess, who had been on a three-day visit, was leaving Dhaka and the security protocol required all flights to be suspended until she left—at least this is what an airport staffer told us. There were old people, people with serious medical conditions who were going to Singapore for treatment, little babies screaming in exhaustion—all waiting until the flight would be announced. I wonder if any other international airport would suspend flights and cause such delays for a foreign dignitary. I am quite sure the princess would be horrified to know such misery was caused to so many passengers on her account.
I also don't understand why the cleaners just peripherally sweep the middle of the fairly clean floors and refuse to clean the grime plastered on the seats at the boarding gates and in the bathrooms. They are, after all, paid to do this job, right? And I don't understand why the microphone inside the gate area is broken and not fixed, which is why the staff couldn't tell us that we had to wait for two hours. Most importantly, I don't understand why it feels like a battle zone every time we try to enter the airport, with no staff to bring some order to the traffic jam of vehicles trying to get into the entrance or the crowd of people waiting outside.
Mr Salman F Rahman has sternly said that if, after his visits, complaints regarding the airport continue, severe actions will be taken. If such strictness is indeed imposed on the airport staff and officials who supervise them, there may be some hope for us minions, and foreign visitors will not be resigned to just accepting poor quality service at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is joint editor at The Daily Star.