The Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) is the main international airport serving Sri Lanka, and initially served as a Royal Air Force Airport during the Second World War. The airport was later rebuilt into an international airport named after the 4th Prime minister of Sri Lanka S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. In 2015 BIA was amongst the top 10 worst airports in Asia by sleepinginairports.net – truthfully speaking this is not a surprise to me but a disappointing mortification.
To add on to the list of accolades, the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) which was proudly opened in march 2013 was labeled as ‘The World’s Emptiest International Airport’ by Forbes. Many reasons contributed to the problems faced by the airport since it’s inception, including;
1) The lack of supplementary infrastructure to meet the demands of the airport for people to visit it.
2) The flights severely affect the environment surrounding MRIA, which has many migratory birds and elephants. As a result hindering progress towards the eco-friendly sustainable development goals of Sri Lanka.
However, this Article will not focus on MRIA, as IntCa has already published proposed solutions for the abandoned edifice. Instead it will highlight the ignored problems of BIA that could be fixed immediately if proper action is taken.
HOW WAS BIA RATED?
The low rating of BIA, was primarily as a result of;
1) Lack of hygiene, specially the unsanitary toilets which causes a lot of discomfort for the travellers.
2) Habitually flagrant corruption among the airport staff – Sri Lankans may have adjusted to these conditions due to the ordinary prevalence of it amongst our society. But, many international visitors will not be impressed by our bribe-taking salutation they receive at the airport.
At first the solution to dirty bathrooms seems obvious – clean the place more often. But, the voters on Sleeping in airports may have expected other requirements to make their travels more comfortable. I propose that an anonymous questionnaire could be given to the travellers while they stay in transit — possibly providing an incentive for them to contribute, such as a raffle draw, gift vouchers or duty free offers etc. This could substantially gather information from the respondents. Analysis of the retrieved data could be used to understand the necessities and other drawbacks of the airport. I have experienced this at the Singapore Changi Airport, which was rated amongst the top 10 airports of 2016 and frankly I did not mind spending about 2 minutes on filling the comprehensible questionnaire.
CORRUPTION & HARASSMENT
Exploitation of migrant workers by depraved airport officials were reported multiple times in 2015. The action taken in response was ineffective, and these nefarious activities, which I have personally experienced, still take place. Being an individual that understands my civil rights therefore I could easily refuse when asked for a bribe. However, innocent migrant workers, majority of them women, are compelled to pay large amounts of money because;
1) The misogyny that at openly exist in the society.
2) They do not know their civil rights and are misled into believing that the Airport officials have authority to ask for illicit bribes.
3) Most migrant-domestic workers undergo abuse and other hardships before they return back home, therefore do not mind giving a bribe willingly to get out of the airport quickly to escape the faced trauma – this obviously is no excuse to justify these acts.
An appalling video of a foreign woman being questioned after being sexually harassed in BIA by an airport official is very distressing and demeaning to all Sri Lankans. Unfortunately there have been many reports of similar incidents happening at BIA but effective action is yet to be taken against the wrongdoers and more importantly, prevent such incidents happening in the future.
I believe that higher-level officials who oversee their subordinate airport staff must be held accountable for the frequent malpractice. Even if there is no participation by them, when a blind-eye is turned on the illegal practices and the unpleasant state of the premises, they too are equally guilty of the crime – or maybe, it is possible that these officials are also participants of this iniquitous game.
In order to overcome this, independent expert reviews of the system are imperative. The Anti-Corruption Front that was established by the new government in efforts to eliminate the island-wide corruption has to be urged to thoroughly investigate the gateway of the country. The freedom of press in Sri Lanka saw a significant rise as journalist were given the flexibility to publicly express views without repressive political constraint but, have our journalist’s acquired the proper cognitive skills in investigative journalism? Major Sri Lankan news networks have the responsibility to equip individuals with the necessary expertise. The airport staff require training on the ethics of public service and clear-cut rules that should be adhered on duty. Further, anti-corruption workshops could be conducted to raise awareness on the consequences of engaging in such activities. Simply, many variables have to be logically considered.
Furthermore, law-breakers, if proven guilty should be dealt with uncompromisingly; they could even be exemplified as a public warning. It is imperative that the lawbreakers are caught and prosecuted – else the cycle of maltreatment cannot be stopped. CCTV surveillance has to be implemented in all areas of the airport to prevent any ‘blind-spots’ because empirical evidence is required to prove the culprits guilty by law. As a last resort, body cameras, if the allocated budget permits, could be used by all airport official for further integrity. Effective training should be given to the staff with lucid instructions on the ethics and disciplinary standards of BIA.
THE CURRENT SITUATION AND PLANNED DEVELOPMENTS OF BIA
According to the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva, maintenance work on the 30 year old runway will be carried out commencing on January 5th, 2017. The government envisages that the US $500 million expansion project of BIA would increase the passenger handling capacity to 12 million per annum. The expansion of the airport is great for our lucrative tourist industry and the overall economic development, but it will also amplify the existing corruption and presumably, the current unhygienic state will continue on to the newly expanded areas of the airport.
As you can clearly see, the air transport sector of Sri Lanka faces many obstacles that were created by former imprudent leaders. It seems as if the ambitious large-scale projects have simply hidden the current situation of the airport. Feasible solutions to increase the hygienic standards of BIA and minimise, or even eliminate the corruption could be implemented immediately – unlike the problems of much larger magnitude which demands more resources. Therefore, why not strategically tackle the smaller problems first while steadily preparing to face the next annual goals.
THINK, RECOGNIZE AND ACT
When most of us were schooling overly-exaggerated rules were imposed on the students’ dress code. But, as we matured, I believe that we understood that judging a person by his/her appearance is morally wrong. But, the truth is that first impressions do matter and has a long lasting effect on a person’s image, or in this case – the main international airport of a country. An airport while being the gateway to a country could also give a moderate image of the nation to a visitor. Therefore, let us delocalize our thinking and prudently clean up the Colombo airport, with it’s abysmal track record without further procrastination.