Sunday, August 10, 2008

Should an airport become anti-passenger?

Inside Bengaluru International Airport
Photo Credit : BAIL

What the salaried class is to income tax hunters, passengers are to aviation mandarins: Helpless, captive milch-cows. The way Air-India overcharges and ill-treats Gulf travellers is a case in point. It has had a monopoly in this sector for long and it has shamelessly used that exclusivity to exploit passengers.

Now the Bangalore International Airport is becoming a landmark example of how airport companies can squeeze the Mickey out of air passengers. It wants to impose a user fee. And no chhotta-motta thing either. It has specified an avaricious Rs 675 for every domestic passenger and an avaricious Rs 955 for every international passenger. The CEO of the company says this inflated user fee “is the core of our revenue stream without which the operations would not be viable”.

There is something fundamentally wrong when a company sees monopoly-based exploitation as the basis of its core revenue. What the Bangalore company's CEO has projected is a bankrupt business model. On his logic the new Hyderabad airport's CEO must be a dimwit for Hyderabad is levying no user fee. Mumbai and Delhi airports, recently privatised, have no user fee either. How come their operations are viable? Will they open their floodgates if the Bangalore company sets the wrong example?

Kozhikode airport made itself notorious once by charging a user fee. Passengers raised a hue and cry. The Malabar Chamber of Commerce took the lead in coordinating the protests. The boycott that followed seriously dented the load factor in departing flights and forced authorities to drop the user fee system completely.

Cochin Airport company, the first “private” operator in the country, imposed a user fee in early 2001. Protests were strong and the authorities there also abandoned the idea five years later. They gave the excuse that user fee was no longer needed because the company was profitable.

That company continues to be nicely profitable. Which shows that an efficiently run airport does not need usurious levies to build up a healthy revenue stream. It is lazy managements that resort to such anti-passenger shortcuts. Let's not forget Kozhikode and Cochin imposed user fees only on departing international passengers. It's the Bangalore CEO who has the brainwave to fleece domestic passengers as well.

That's unconscionable when the new Bangalore airport's aggravation count is already heavy. Frequent fliers from heartlands like Electronic City will need three hours to reach the airport. And they must reach one hour ahead of the flight. So we are talking of a four-hour ordeal for a 45-minute flight to Chennai.

It's about time that oversmart CEOs and companies looking for easy money are told that this is a country where people's interests count. Governments both in Delhi and Bangalore as well as business organisations must insist that (a) no extortionist user fee will be allowed, and (b) Bangalore's geography demands that the option to allow short-haul flights from the present HAL airport is retained.

The failure to provide speedy and comfortable access to the airport is something for which passengers must be compensated, not penalised. If passengers are used for artificial profit-making, then the airport company should pay the passenger a user fee. How about Rs 998?