Before Chennai airport becomes Changi, time to get the basics in place!

Long queues, overcrowded baggage belts, immigration fiascos and filthy terminals -- the Chennai airport is an embarrassment and an ordeal for commuters from the city.

Chennai airport has been in the news for quite some time now. For those of us who regularly come through its portals, some of the news sounds almost comic.

One of the articles in the dailies says Chennai airport is soon going to see Phase II of expansion, after which it will be like Singapore’s Changi airport. Another said that there will be a tunnel to connect the passenger and cargo terminals that are proposed in Phase II.  The third report said that the airport is attempting a 10-day trial of operating the cross runway in order to increase the number of flights per hour.

So much in the works, and yet, no one is talking of improving the passenger experience.

Phase I of the airport’s expansion was ‘completed’ five years ago, and parts of the airport were opened to the public. There were of course the infamous incidents of false ceiling panels falling on passengers and glass cracking within a few months, but by and large, the passengers have learned to adjust.

Never mind that it is the only ‘modernised’ airport in the country that does not have inline scanning of bags when you check in for domestic flights. Never mind that they still have one, or at the most two, machines and booths for screening women passengers, as opposed to four or five for men, even though women account for much more than one fifth of the travelling public, especially in the holiday season. Little kids, boys and girls, invariably go with Mom, so the two women’s lines are always backed up. Sometimes, if you politely make a request, the CISF staff will agree to start a third line (they have the space to do it – inside a little alcove). 

G Chandramouli, Director, Chennai airport told Citizen Matters Chennai, “There is a shortage in the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) staff in Chennai airport. This is the reason for not being able to open all the gates for security. A manpower study conducted at the airport proposes to increase the CISF strength from the existing 1,200 members to 1,600. The proposal has been sent to the Ministry of Home for final sanction and approval. ”

Granted, but can there, at least, be a mechanism to give the airport authorities some feedback on crowd management please? Sometimes one whizzes through security in three minutes, and sometimes you have to wait nearly forty five minutes! And why does the security person who is sitting near the X-ray machine, have to write down the names of passengers in an old world notebook, in a scene reminiscent of really old movies?

Arrival is only slightly better. Often one is brought to the terminal in buses, while the aerobridges stand unoccupied. Like many of my fellow passengers I am very curious about the reason for this and wish someone would tell us. The four baggage belts have been divvied up airline wise, so when four Indigo flights arrive together, all 800+ passengers will have their bags stuffed onto the same belt, while three other belts are unutilised. I have never encountered this logic of resource utilisation anywhere else.

The international terminal is another story altogether. We can enter the Departure terminal through the new building, but we must still exit through the old building. No one knows the reason why this must be so. Thankfully the immigration counters have been placed in the large ‘new’ hall in the new terminal. That is about the only thing to be thankful for.

Why, oh why, can we not have adequate (bold and repeated) signage for the e-visa counters, as one walks down the long corridor to turn into the immigration hall? I have lost count of the number of times a foreigner ahead of me in the queue has reached the desk, only to be sent back to the not-so-obvious e-visa counter!!

Why can’t we have separate queues for Indians and foreigners? Every other country has separate (faster) lines for returning citizens, Mumbai and Delhi have it too (as I am sure do many other Indian airports) Why make us wait behind folks who will be subjected to many minutes of questioning about the duration and purpose of their visit, address of hotel, etc? We just want to go home!

Speaking of immigration lines, it is almost comical the way arriving passengers rush to take spots in queues by guessing which officer is likely to be efficient. I am in what I think is a short line, and then as another officer comes to his desk, I rush (along with 50 others) to make a queue at that counter. Then a foreigner goes up to the desk and is stuck there forever, while the queue that I had rushed out of is merrily moving ahead at a fast clip. Then, to my great mortification, one more officer now comes to work at the twin desk of the same line, and that queue is moving twice as fast!

It is inexplicable why the Immigration bureau does not implement serpentine queues at the arrival counters (as they have done at departure). One of the fundamental principles of queue management is to keep the queue moving to cut down restlessness among those waiting, and serpentine queues have proved to be more efficient in distributing passengers across immigration counters worldwide. I have waited at many immigration counters around the world, and often for much longer than I wait at Chennai, but never have I experienced the same sense of helplessness.

Finally, I am out, wheeling my bag through the exit (in the old terminal building, mind you), and it hits me in the face – Chennai airport is one of the dirtiest I have ever seen. Garbage, scraps of paper, food packaging, lies strewn all around, vying for attention with construction debris, that has been lying there for at least two years now.

About a month ago, a famous Fortune 500 CEO from New York was visiting Chennai, the city she was born and spent much of her early days in, and she was heard expressing her anguish at the condition of the airport, at a private gathering. She in fact suggested that citizens should get together, roll up their sleeves and clean up the airport area, because everyone knows something has to be done, but no one is doing anything!

The airport is our chance to make a great first impression to visitors from other cities and countries, and we are bent upon blowing it. Is anyone listening?


  1. Girish says:

    So true an account of the “Changi” of Chennai. I cannot agree more.
    There is a lot to be done, but who cares?
    There is no will at all.
    Complete apathy towards everything and everyone.
    We need to collectively engage to see that things change for better.
    Am willing to do my bit.

  2. Raghukumar Choodamani says:

    So very true!!!! We have experienced all the problems mentioned in your post while travelling and have remained silent spectators. For how long are we going to tolerate or live with an administration which is ineffective in every sense. Is it not the right time to set into process the long standing demand for Administrative Reforms. Glad that Citizen Matters has taken up the cause of escalating the issues which effect the common man on a daily basis.

  3. G Sriram says:

    Absolutely True! You expect the unexpected at Chennai Airport ! Nowhere near the Airports of Mumbai,Delhi ,Bengaluru or Hyderabad and I am wondering why they can’t privatise Chennai Airport like the other four Airports mentioned! High time we Chennaites get together & raise our concerns

  4. Mr R Poduval says:

    I was in Chennai (Madras) in January 2017 on a business visit from the UK. Chennai Airport is just dreadful and deplorable and has put me off from visiting Chennai again. Having said that, the ordinary people of Chennai are so pleasant and kind.

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