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Wheelchair woes for fliers at new terminal

Frequent flier Sreela Dasgupta’s excitement about sampling the facilities at Calcutta’s “new airport” vanished even before she had gone past the terminal’s grand glass facade.

Sreela was shocked to learn that a Rs 2,324-crore integrated terminal with Wi-fi mobility didn’t have a system in place to provide a wheelchair on demand.

“In the old terminal, passengers would ask for wheelchairs at the airline counters outside and one would arrive in 10 minutes,” she told Metro. “Here they ask you to wait at your designated gate. You wait for 30 minutes and go back to the wheelchair request kiosk, from where they send you back to the gate.”

That was a few months ago, and Sreela has since discovered that it wasn’t a one-off thing. The average waiting time for a wheelchair is 25 to 30 minutes, going by complaints lodged with various airlines.

The only way to speed up the process is by having a family member, fellow traveller or escort walk into the terminal to fetch a wheelchair or contact an airline official over phone.

The absence of helpdesks near the gates, which many airports have, is part of the problem. “Outbound passengers face more difficulty finding wheelchairs than those arriving,” an official of a private airline said.

The irony of it is that the Airports Authority of India charges a user development fee of Rs 450 from every passenger booked on a domestic flight from Calcutta and Rs 1,125 on each international ticket. The fee, levied since March 15, is meant to ensure a “fair return” on the investment made in the new terminal building.

The paying passenger, of course, doesn’t count.

At Delhi’s T3, passengers can dial any airline from designated telephones in front of the gates for wheelchairs and other assistance free of cost.

Mumbai has counters outside the terminals and personnel at the gates ready to assist.

Most fliers are taken aback when told that Calcutta airport has no such facility. Entrepreneur Anita Nankani was livid at being made to wait for a wheelchair for her 75-year-old mother Kamla.

“My mother, who was headed for Bangalore, has severe arthritis and damaged knees. She needs a wheelchair. It took us half an hour to get one,” Anita said.

Since there is no dedicated counter for wheelchair passengers, Anita approached personnel manning a ticket counter.

She was asked to proceed to a departure gate, where she and her mother waited and waited for the wheelchair to arrive.

“It was only after I screamed in protest that someone brought a wheelchair for my mother. At Bangalore airport, a wheelchair was kept for her at the designated gate,” she said.

Airlines blame poor planning by the airport authorities for the problem. It doesn’t help even if a passenger mentions the wheelchair requirement while booking the ticket.

“There are several gates here and you don’t know which one the passenger will take,” an airline official said.

The airport authorities have promised to arrange for intercom phones at every departure gate along with dedicated seats for passengers on wheelchairs.

Have you faced difficulty finding a wheelchair at the airport? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com