At the country's principal international airport on a recent morning, all entrance gates were jam-packed as the queues kept getting longer and longer since the morning. At 11am, at least 2,000 people were standing in a queue, if you want to call it that, to get to the boarding area. It was more like sardines crushed inside a tin box.
A common refrain among passengers was that the scene at the airport was no different to the country's train and launch terminals during the crush of Eid. Some remarked it was worse. Their complaints were endless, from lack of any staff to help make things easier for them, a farcical trolley shortage, corrupt and dishonest officers looking to exploit their vulnerability, no regard for any health services, poor technical support - as long as you could listen, they could name something. Some of it is scarcely sane.
For example, there was no way of knowing which queue was for what purpose, or where it even went. They also cursed the support staff for their callousness and lack of cooperation at the airport.
Acknowledging the situation, the airport authorities said for now the issue of passengers not missing flights was their utmost priority. So they are resigned almost, to putting you through hell and back, but getting you on that flight you've got booked no matter what. Starts with asking passengers outbound passengers to arrive with a good six to seven hours in hand to get through the whole ordeal.
Runway to hell
In fact, most of us by now know a passenger or two over the last couple of weeks (it started December 10), who has recounted a tale of unspeakable suffering at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh, of being stranded for 8-10 hours. The runway will be closed for the next six months from 12am to 8am as part of the construction work on the third terminal.
At the same time, the runway of the airport was closed for two and a half hours extra till December 16, as preparations were on for the fly past that took place on Victory Day. The smooth manner in which that was executed in the end, belied the untold suffering inflicted on so may, borne by those who have no stake in it. With the flights inoperative for 10 hours every day, airlines have had to reschedule. But passengers are complaining that they are suffering due to the pressure of more flights packed in a short period of time.
Further adding to the scenes of pure bedlam is the airport's so-called 'trolley crisis'. In short supply at the best of times, the current situation is frequently descending into barbaric brawls over getting one of the few available, for which demand at any moment is way overshooting supply. People have to fight each other just to get a trolley to carry their luggage.
And even here, some unscrupulous staff have managed to create a nefarious black market. Instead of the trolley rack, for payment of a fee to the right staff member, a trolley will be brought to you, even as other passengers are left searching frantically for one, or have been doing just that for two hours already. Even members of the Armed Police Battalion (APBn) are getting involved in these sordid cliques.
Additional Superintendent of Police Md Ziaul Haque, who is in charge of airport security, acknowledged the chaotic situation, attributing it to the crisis that was not of his making. The security officers, he held, were committed to working to make the best of a difficult situation.
According to Group Captain AHM Touhid-ul Ahsan, executive director of Dhaka International Airport, in the present situation since December 10, they have been handling upto 20,000 people at any one time - whereas it used to be 10,000 to 12,000 in normal times. The captain's plight would deserve some sympathy, if he had shown some evidence of contingency planning for the situation and that had somehow failed. After all, this was no unforeseen emergency. The one thing that could be said for it is that there was plenty of notice served: everybody knew this was coming.
Obviously the immigration process was also taking a hit due to the added pressure. However, passengers were not missing flights, the ED insists. As much as he may try and reassure us though, there are allegations to the contrary.
An official of a travel agency, who did not want to be named, said that they had to change all their flight schedules from the first week of December.
"We are informing everyone by phone. Especially those who go to the Middle East, not everyone uses email or phone regularly. Those who are not available on the phone, they may be missing the flight. This has happened to a number of people," he said.
A British man married to a Bangladeshi woman, with the couple splitting their time between the two countries, told how he was due to arrive in Bangladesh in December. He said, "I love to go to Bangladesh at this time as there is a long school holiday in December. These tickets were bought a long time ago."
"But I have been informed by the airlines that my schedule has been changed due to construction work at Dhaka airport. I don't have time off when they want to fly, or the kids have school. This has happened to a number of other people I know."
The strain is being felt in his marriage, he says. "It is extremely disruptive, we both feel that way."
And yet another sufferer, looking like he has been put through the cleaners, says he feels benumbed by his whole experience, and now just wants it over with. "My flight has changed thrice. The last time I tried to enter the airport was eight hours earlier. Afternoon flight, for which I arrived at dawn. There was a long line to eat. It took hours. Even now I am hungry, but I dare not go for it. I just want to get on my flight."
Moazzem Hossain, a BBC journalist, left Bangladesh for the United Kingdom on 26 November. Hussein was scheduled to catch a flight of Turkish Airlines at 11:30 pm. He arrived at the airport just before 8pm, taking some time with him.
According to Moazzem's account, there was extreme chaos going on then. Outbound passengers have to stand in line at the airport's health desk with the Covid Negative Certificate of the Covid test. An officer will scan the QR code of the certificate on a scanner and place a seal on it. Airport officials say there are a total of eight health desks at the airport.
However, Moazzem said that only one person was working at a desk at that time on November 26. And 70/80 passengers were waiting in line. But the officer at the desk was constantly talking on the phone. One of his phone calls was about 10/15 minutes. Meanwhile, the line was getting longer. At one point, a few lines formed in front of a desk, and a commotion broke out among the passengers.
Moazzem recorded a video of the officer, his face mask hanging off, and talking on the telephone. Passengers waiting in front are protesting impatiently, but the officer carries on with his phone conversation, non-plussed.
Hell on Earth
Another passenger, an expatriate who recently returned to Bangladesh from Qatar via Dubai last week, recounted his experience in sheer distress, that all started when he stepped off his Qatar Airways flight.
He said he suffered right from the boarding bridge. "The situation today inside is worse than ever before. A lot of people. It took two hours for me to get to the Covid health desk along the line. It took another hour to get to immigration. It was so chaotic and then there was no trolley when I went to pick up my luggage."
All in all, he said it took him about three hours to complete everything and exit the airport from when the flight landed.
According to travel agencies, long-haul airlines from Bangladesh usually operate their flights at midnight or early morning. But since it is closed now at that time, they have had to reschedule their flights during the day. As a result, many passengers are putting pressure on the airport at the same time.
There is also the obligation to test for Covid-19 before going to some countries, there is also a long embarrassment. Long lines are also being formed for PCR test paper examination, checking, health, customs, immigration or boarding pass collection. Passengers are even in trolley crisis.
However, AHM Touhid-ul Ahsan is of the view that in the current situation, they have no choice but to try and do more.
"There is no room for additional desks for Covid. We are constantly monitoring the situation. We have talked to the people concerned in the government. But for now, there seems to be nothing to do," Ahsan said.
Shahjalal International Airport operates an average of 28 airlines daily flights. A total of 100 flights come and go every day and in all, more than 10 thousand passengers come and go every day.
When the buck don't stop
State Minister for Civil Aviation and Tourism Md Mahbub Ali on Wednesday (December 22) directed the authorities concerned to take departmental action against officials found to be negligent in performing their duties at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport.
He gave the directives while inspecting the overall activities of Dhaka airport, including the baggage area, customs and immigration, and the area designated for RT PCR tests. The state minister instructed the airport executive director to assign a trolley man to each belt in the baggage area to provide information on trolleys to passengers.
He also asked customs and immigration officials at the airport to provide services for passengers speedily and with professionalism, mentioning that their services cannot be interrupted in any way. The employees of all the agencies working at the airport have to work together with an attitude of cooperation, aiming to ensure quality services for passengers, Mahbub said.
He said many flights are being delayed due to additional time needed in customs for transit passengers of different destinations, and the customs checking of transit passengers should be completed on priority basis. If necessary, separate desks and queues should be arranged for transit passengers, he added.
About the manpower crisis in the customs and immigration unit of the airport, the state minister assured of taking steps to hire staff there soon in consultation with the authorities concerned. He also instructed the officials concerned to set up kiosk machines in the areas designated for RT PCR within the next one week, with the aim of preventing passenger harassment.
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