Sorry state of Islamabad airport now a global embarrassment

Updated October 20, 2014

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.—AFP file photo
.—AFP file photo

ISLAMABAD: Comfort, convenience, cleanliness and customer service: the four ‘Cs’ that are the hallmark of any good terminus. This is probably why this was the yardstick used by the Guide to Sleeping at Airports – an international website for travelers and frequent fliers – to determine which was ‘the worst airport in the world’.

That title, after going to Manila’s infamous terminus for several years running, has this year fallen to Islamabad’s Benazir Bhutto International Airport (BBIA). Explaining the decision, the website says, “Likened to a central prison, [BBIA] is criticised for the crowds – and absence of crowd control, the pervasive corruption, the aggressive-yet-inconsistent security checks, and the overall lack of cleanliness and technology. Travelers have also complained about the airport’s inability to handle passengers for over a decade.”

Also read: Islamabad airport worst in the world: survey

According to airport officials, on average, BBIA sees around four million passengers pass through it every year. This is nearly the same volume as seen at Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport. However, being a capital city, Islamabad is host to all sorts of foreign dignitaries, important functionaries and businessmen and even tourists on their way to Gilgit-Baltistan. In addition, a deluge of VIPs, government officials and top executives fly in and out of the airport to various destinations around the country, every day. That the first impression they get of the capital is from the state of affairs at BBIA is a terrifying thought.


Frequent fliers tell tales of an unclean, badly managed terminus; airport admin admits things are not up to mark


“I was once traveling business class to Istanbul on a late-night flight and hence had access to the so called exclusive CIP Lounge. Upon entering the lounge, a foul smell, two dim lights and a gentleman snoring away on the massage chair greeted me,” said Nasir Chaudhry, who works in the oil and gas industry and frequently travels abroad from BBIA.

“When I tried to order some food, I found that the sandwiches had gone bad, there were ants crawling around the snack counter and the restroom was teeming with cockroaches,” he said.

Nasir’s story is not unique. Indeed, nearly everyone who has been through BBIA, be it for an international flight or a domestic one, has some kind of horror story to tell.

“I had to catch a flight to Kabul and it didn’t turn out well. The men at the first security counter near the entrance asked me to open my bag. I’ve travelled from a lot of major airports and have never been asked to open my bag, especially at the first checkpoint and never when there is a baggage scanner on hand. They rummaged through it mercilessly and I ended up having to repack my bag in the middle of a crowded departure lounge,” Shoaib Taimur told Dawn.

Frequent flier Shahzad Ahmad, who runs an NGO based in Islamabad, complained about the sheer lack of space at the congested airport.

“Once, I arrived more than two-and-a-half-hours before the scheduled time for my international flight but was unable to enter the terminal because three flights were boarding simultaneously. It took over 90 minutes just to enter the building of the airport. Negotiating baggage check, immigration and the 13 or so security checks on the way to the plane took me nearly as much time and I almost missed my flight, even though I showed up well in advance,” he told Dawn.

He endorsed the view, quoted in the survey, that said that Islamabad airport resembled a prison, adding that due to its awkward location in the middle of a heavily residential area, it also poses a security risk to those living in the vicinity.

The airport is unfriendly for smokers and non-smokers alike. Islamabad-based lawyer Mehreen Mir said she had seen specialised smoking areas at nearly every major international airport she had been through. “But after returning from a trip to the Far East, the minute I landed back at Islamabad, I was greeted with the sight of a man, standing at the baggage carousel, smoking away nonchalantly, right next to a ‘No Smoking’ sign. But the best part is, nobody cared,” she said.

Other people Dawn spoke to complained of various problems, such as a lack of space in the airport parking lot, overcharging by concession-stand owners located on airport premises, as well as problems getting from terminal to plane safely. Several people complained that they had to walk across the tarmac to reach their planes when buses were not available. Many also remembered being seated on the wrong flight because passenger management was being carried out manually after the airport’s computers broke down.

Even though delays are usually no fault of the airport administration, BBIA is unique. Owing to its limited capacity, the airport can only accommodate up to four aircraft at a time – two arriving and two departing. Airport Manager Ayaz Jadoon told Dawn that the airport uses a technique called ‘flight staggering’, whereby they can spread the arrival of different planes over a wider period of time, allowing them to accommodate incoming and outgoing flights without taxing the meager resources at their disposal.

“Islamabad airport is built on the site of an old hangar. It is not a purpose-built airport, like the ones in Lahore or Karachi. Since 1985, the space allotted for the airport has not increased at all,” Mr Jadoon said.

Mr Jadoon, while admitting that his airport had several shortcomings when compared to major international airports around the world, said that the airport possessed state of the art technology when it came to flight safety and operations. “If our equipment wasn’t top-of-the-line, the 18 or so international airlines that land here would cease to operate from BBIA,” he said.

Talking about some of the issues raised by travelers, he said that the CIP Lounge had been recently renovated and the airport had acquired more space for a parking lot. “Hopefully, work on the new airport will be completed soon, so passengers will have an easier time navigating through Islamabad. Until then, we are trying our best to manage the situation with the resources we have at our disposal,” he concluded.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2014