The Delhi International Airport Ltd (DIAL) controversy raises issues that are no doubt important. But as one reads about them, one is reminded of an apocryphal quote, ascribed to various people, including Indira Gandhi. “It is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice.” Consider what’s been reported about DIAL’s meeting with Planning Commission. First, a world-class airport awaits us and after all, this is phased expansion and modernisation, with a time-line of 20 years. What’s 20 years when we have waited since 1947? Second, some clearances (number of CISF (Central Industrial Security Force) personnel, immigration personnel, X-ray machines) are beyond DIAL’s control, as are decisions about relocating airline offices, Indian Air Force blocks and VIP gates. Third, DIAL is now taking emergency transitory measures that weren’t part of the original Operation, Management and Development Agreement - Haj terminal, interim terminal. Add reports of the spat between Civil Aviation Ministry and Planning Commission. Apparently, the Minister first took objection to the Deputy Chairman meddling in Ministry matters. His letter said, “The modernisation of Kolkata and Chennai airport is being delayed due to constant objections being raised by the Planning Commission about the scale and size of these airports we planned to construct.”
We now have some additional issues, beyond land acquisition problems (Chennai). For instance, fourth, there is the question of how modernisation and/or expansion are financed. As a general point on infrastructure, it is indeed true that India hasn’t yet experimented enough with equity driven models, or even higher user charges. If it is public resources, one can’t duck the point about trade-offs and opportunity costs. What’s the case for spending them on Kolkata rather than the North-East? And fifth, aren’t costs (including environment and land) lower for relatively green-field projects (like Bangalore) rather than expansion/up-gradation of existing ones? These are serious and important issues, none of which have simple answers and debate is inevitable. However, I don’t think the DIAL problem is about these. Nor is the problem about delays and DIAL management failing to anticipate 20% annual increase in passenger traffic. It is about mismanagement of the transition. DIAL banners all over Delhi airport ask passengers for their patience and understanding. The patience exists. But, because of mismanagement, the understanding does not. Unfortunately, in the process, this has given privatisation a bad name and again unfortunately, Delhi tends to be much more visible.
Here are some random examples, which no amount of patience will enable me to understand. First, emigration has now improved. But for about three weeks in April, there was utter chaos, with emigration taking anything up to 1 hour and passengers actually missing flights. Didn’t DIAL management anticipate this? Second, why does CISF security have a “shift change” that is at a fixed time across all queues? For fifteen minutes, security stops everywhere. It should be a simple matter to stagger the “shift change”. Third, why does no bank in departure have credit card-reading machines and why is an ATM missing? I travelled with a friend who wanted to purchase some forex and wished to pay through credit card, failing which, cash withdrawal through ATM. He had to go down to arrival and come up again to solve this problem. Fourth, increasing the number of X-ray machines may take time. But what’s the problem in imparting basic training to screeners, making them more polite, insisting on uniforms and name-tags? Fifth, there is the perennial problem that triggered Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s initial reaction. One refuses to believe that traffic management, including the taxi system, can’t be improved. This is true of departure, as well as arrival. And I mean international more than domestic.
The passenger’s interface is on such matters, rather than fancy power-point presentations that tell us what will happen in 2020. For that matter, does DIAL care about passenger feedback? Without getting into details, feedback kiosks have now changed, making them less credible. Two images from my last trip out (11th May to be precise) still remain. First, a departure screen right above emigration showing status, and stating all flights were delayed and rescheduled by a uniform 22 hours. Quite obviously, it wasn’t being updated. Second, again in emigration, a leak in the false ceiling, so that drops of water leaked out, presumably from air-conditioning. This had been stopped by sticking in an old and folded newspaper. These are images one associated with Airports Authority of India (AAI). Perhaps eventually life will improve. But in the interim, DIAL hasn’t been “nice” to passengers, particularly where passenger interface with a terminal building is the most. In thinking of the interim “Plan B”, DIAL is barking up the wrong tree. This isn’t a hardware problem. It’s a software issue, meaning people. The point is not the product, but the packaging, the PR.