I have waited, walked and sometimes slept… the reluctant memories of lounges live with me

By Raza Ahmad

When I think of an airport, I envisage chaos, delays and inefficiency. Travelling across Asia teaches one to be patient. This is why I keep a book or two, a writing pad and of course my laptop that can be great companions in any circumstance.

Last five years have entailed excessive travel, mostly involving airports. From the sleepy airstrip of Thimpu in Bhutan to the snazzy Chang Mai airport in Singapore, I have waited, walked and sometimes slept… the reluctant memories of airport lounges live with me. Of late, my travel has concentrated within Pakistan.

The recent memories of airports in Pakistan are not all that pleasant. The vulgar VIP culture and the way the overstaffed Pakistan International Airline treats its customers is disconcerting. Before entering the airport, the first thought that crosses one’s mind is about the inevitable delay. God knows how many delays I have suffered along with several others.

I am a frequent traveller and therefore my experience with flight delays is nasty and brutish. Last year, I waited at the Lahore airport almost the entire night. Every half an hour, the flight was further delayed. After all those hours of torture, flight cancellation was announced. These are extreme examples.

In general, an hour’s delay is a matter of routine. Small ATR aircrafts are used on the Lahore-Islamabad route; and they happen to be vulnerable to the elements. For instance, during the monsoons and winters, an ATR cannot land if there are strong winds. Twice, I have also experienced that after all the hassle of checking-in, waiting, suffering delay; the flight turns back from the destination.

I am not saying that the pilots should take risks but at least the airline must analyse the data of the flights and decide accordingly. When you wait around, the staff at the lounge is hesitant to give precise and useful information. Refreshments are rarely served and when they are, it is not a pretty sight. Each time this happens I question why did I not opt for travel via motorway?

Considering how uncertain life has become in Pakistan, it is almost impossible to predict how long it would take to reach an airport. For instance, if the maddening traffic does not hold you, a VVIP cavalcade can emerge from nowhere. Our idea of security to the high and the mighty is to stop all movement on the road and to trap the ordinary civilians until the masters of our destiny have made their way.

If the roads are relatively fine, then the security barriers and extraordinary searches at the airports can make you report late at the check-in counter. I distinctly remember the day Hillary Clinton, United States Secretary of State was visiting Islamabad, I could not leave the city as all the exit points had been closed for traffic. I had to catch an eight am flight. The driver was inventive and he took another route via Rawalpindi and as we were close to the airport, we found out how that entry had been blocked as well.

Finally, I arrived with a few other travellers only 20 minutes before the flight departure. At the PIA counter we were told that the flight was ‘closed’ (whatever that means). A few minutes earlier, a politician from the Rawalpindi district had been issued a boarding pass and we therefore kicked a little storm as the staff was clearly giving preference to those with the right connections. After much ado and few histrionics we were able to get in. Sadly, the staff was completely insensitive to the events outside the safe precincts of the airport.

Recently, a similar incident happened at the Islamabad airport where many pilgrims returning from Hajj were stranded due to PIA style royal mismanagement. The passengers created a storm and ultimately PIA bigwigs had to step in.

On the other hand, the travellers at our airports are equally problematic. For instance, all the washrooms are flooded due to excessive use of water. Littering is common and violation of no smoking signs a norm. Above all, there is no concept of making a queue.

A few months ago when I politely advised a man not to break the queue he was furious and wanted to physically assault me. His psychosis was perhaps a normal occurrence so his family was beseeching him to shut up. His children were on my side but the man with a wounded ego thought that I had perhaps dented his “honour” which entails breaking the queues.

I can continue with my ordeals at the airports but I would not bore the readers anymore. Like other public institutions, services at Pakistani airport leave much to be desired. Public accountability is the only solution. Until, then I am reverting to the Motorway and will only be at an airport if there is no other option.