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Fasten seat belts but not to fly

Calcutta airport’s long overdue integrated terminal will be inaugurated on January 23 and thrown open three days later but most fliers would have to make do with the ill-equipped old facility for several more weeks.

The Rs 2,325-crore project that has missed four deadlines since August 2011 is supposed to make amends for the substandard terminal facilities that fliers to and from Calcutta have had to bear with for years.

But for the majority of the domestic fliers, the wait to sample the new facility would be longer than for international travellers.

“We are planning to make the new terminal operational from January 26 with international flights. Domestic airlines will be shifted there in phases,” V.P. Agrawal, the chairman of the Airports Authority of India (AAI), said on Monday.

Officials involved in the project cited a shortage of aerobridges, among other infrastructural shortcomings, as the reason for delaying the start of domestic operations.

Five aerobridges have already been installed and seven more set sail from Indonesia last Saturday.

The terminal has been designed in such a way that 80 per cent of the fliers would board or disembark from flights through 18 aerobridges.“Twelve aerobridges are enough to handle the existing passenger flow,” the AAI chairman said.

The software for the baggage handling and check-in counters have not been fully installed either.

“We are still awaiting readiness in terms of IT issues,” said Capt. Sarvesh Gupta, the chairman of the Airlines Operators’ Committee. “So the transition will need to be done in a phased manner over a few weeks’ time.”

Even if international airlines start operating from the integrated terminal on January 26, passengers might have to do without duty-free shops for some time.

The contract with the agency that currently operates duty-free shops ended earlier this year. “They are doing business on an extended contract,” airport director B.P. Sharma said.

Eight international agencies have bid for duty-free shops in the new terminal. “The tender is likely to be finalised by the end of this month. However, the customs authorities have yet to grant permission to use that space,” Agrawal said.

For domestic passengers, a few weeks’ delay in shifting to the new terminal means making do with the old, shabby facility for the entire tourist season.

The airport handled 12,000 domestic passengers daily on an average last week. The daily average of international fliers during the same period was 3,000.

With the passenger load set to increase further over the next three weeks, airport officials expect the number of domestic passengers to be around 15,000 daily during the Christmas and New Year’s Eve week. In an already rundown domestic terminal, a holiday rush would heap twice the trouble on passengers.

“The airport authorities have improved some sections of the old infrastructure but we still face problems,” said businessman Sunil Virwani.

He was flying to Mumbai last week and had to queue up for more than 15 minutes for the security check. “There are long queues at the departure gates too,” Virwani said.

Fliers also complain of dirty toilets and inadequate trolleys. Some of the trolleys that had been repaired have become defective again, often damaging luggage.

Businessman Satyajit Burman arrived from Delhi last week and faced the same problem. “The trolley I got was one with a jammed wheel. Of what use is a trolley without a proper wheel?” he demanded.

The condition of the international terminal is apparently worse, the saving grace being that it doesn’t handle as many flights as the domestic facility does.