Realising BIA’s full potential | Daily News


Realising BIA’s full potential

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown a hands-on approach to getting things done since he assumed office exactly two months ago. As Defence and Urban Development Secretary, he was known for on-the-spot assessments of various projects. Directing officials from an air-conditioned office in Colombo does not appeal to him.

He has already made sudden inspection tours of the RMV, Narahenpita Economic Centre, National Hospital and several other nerve centres to see for himself how the public is served by these institutions. These visits were completely unannounced that not even the minister in charge was present. The media was also mainly kept in the dark, lest these visits become a media spectacle where the President would not be able to achieve his objectives. Only recordings made on smartphones by the public at these venues were later played on TV news bulletins.

His latest unannounced visit is so far the most significant, being literally the first point of entry to the country for visitors – the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), Katunayake. Earlier, before embarking his commercial airliner for an official visit to India, the President shunned the VIP Lounge and fast track embarkation normally used by other top politicians and experienced the normal process undergone by all ordinary passengers. On that occasion too, he made several observations that were passed on to airport officials. However, due to the lack of time, he could not undertake a full inspection.

Hence his decision to do a full inspection tour of the airport complex in order to find out the shortcomings. Having observed the functions at the airport, the President instructed airport officials to minimize inconvenience and delays caused to arriving and departing passengers. He also instructed to implement the enhanced security measures within the BIA premises in a passenger-friendly manner.

The President also instructed the Director General of Emigration and Immigration to employ a sufficient number of officers for BIA duties to prevent any possible delays. This is a severe problem as sometimes many counters are left unmanned, leaving passengers trapped in long queues with the clock ticking at the departure gate.

But one problem that affects the overall passenger experience at the BIA is that it is running above its capacity. Having been designed to handle around six million passengers a year, it now processes over 9 million. This creates a passenger crunch at busy periods when airliners land and take off every 15 minutes or so.

This is why the airport expansion project must be executed without delay. Although this project started in 2014 during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, the previous Government had a lackadaisical attitude towards it. This was brought to the notice of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as soon as he assumed office, whereupon he instructed the relevant officials to expedite the project. He reiterated this stance during the inspection tour, pointing out the need for two terminals for arrivals and departures where arriving and departing passengers are completely separated (right now, they can mix). With more airlines scrambling to get slots at the BIA (IATA Code CMB), including Ethiopian and Biman Bangladesh, expansion is a must.

BIA chiefs were also instructed to designate a separate area for taxis, which is also a timely proposal. Right now, passengers wishing to take a taxi or a ridesharing service face some difficulties. The airport taxi service itself should also be revamped with better vehicles, professional drivers and a more courteous service. One can take a cue from the Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport’s Traffic Police approved taxi service. The airport-Colombo bus service must be streamlined and the now-defunct airport-city rail link must be revived.

Airport officials must also deal with the problem of touts inside and immediately outside the airport, who harass passengers for everything from duty free goods to hotels, taxis and foreign exchange. This creates a bad impression of the country among foreign visitors. Any official representatives of hotels, banks and transport services must be given badges and identification for the convenience of travellers.

The airport must have more free luggage weighting scales and self-service check-in kiosks which can speed up check-in. More awareness must be created among passengers on the online check-in facility which takes care of half the check-in procedure. Officials must also contemplate installing fast-track machine-based immigration systems for Sri Lankans, residence visa holders and those coming from visa waiver countries. These are already popular at many airports, some of which have even moved on to facial recognition.

Our airport officials have to participate actively in “Route Shops” held in various capitals around the world, where airlines hunt for profitable new routes. We sorely need more inbound airline seats to Colombo in order to realise the goal of getting down four million tourists in the short term. Moreover, the BIA must reinvent itself as a regional hub for flights to Europe and Australia, with SriLankan Airlines poised to launch flights to Paris, Frankfurt and Sydney. This will be especially appealing to passengers from the subcontinent. With the ongoing expansion project, Colombo must strive to break into the top 10 Asian airports in due course.

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