A passenger who wants to reach the city from the Chennai airport has few comfortable travel options.
After a long construction phase, the expansion project of the Chennai airport, the third busiest in the country, is close to completion. The terminal buildings with their bright lights are a definite improvement on the drab old structures. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the new facilities truly match international airports in efficiency terms. One feature that Chennai airport lacks is good connectivity choices to the city. If you are a passenger flying into this famous aviation destination from Frankfurt, London, Brussels, Dubai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or even Bangalore, the first rude surprise is the lack of friendly connection options. Remember, nearly 10,500 international and 18,000 domestic passengers pass through the airport daily.
A passenger or visitor who wants to reach the city has no comfortable travel options other than to use personal transport or hire a poorly maintained taxi. It has been a downhill story for a long time now. Three years ago, the MTC, the monopoly city bus operator announced that it was withdrawing all its newly introduced air-conditioned buses operating to the city along two routes from the airport.
Passengers, the transport corporation argued, preferred to use their own vehicles and the bus service was not able to attract even local travellers. Consequently, only an obscure mini-bus service is available now. The reasons for lack of patronage are self-evident, but then, MTC rarely assesses transport demand through a public consultative process.
So will an expanded Chennai airport have better connectivity? What AAI, the airport management body, is saying unofficially is that it has asked for a feasibility report from MTC to divert some city buses via the airport in the southern direction.
Obviously, this cannot be part of a viable solution, even if it has some temporary benefits. Why does an airport bus service, which is the hallmark of many international cities, fail in Chennai? There are some obvious reasons. There is no demarcated area for airport buses outside the terminals, as in Bangalore, for example. The services do not operate at a sensible frequency, touching important city locations. MTC buses are not designed for airport service - with suitable luggage racks. Moreover, inside the city, there are no information boards at bus stops or termini to indicate that airport buses are available. Important hotels are not covered. Fares are unattractive.
Yet, things were more predictable several years ago when far fewer flights operated to Chennai airport. Buses operated by MTC would touch important hotels. Normal city buses were later in service here, until special interests entered the fray to create a bottleneck.
It is time to improve services to Chennai airport for it to be on the travel map with good credentials.
The AAI needs a comprehensive travel link plan, not piecemeal solutions. If the Metro rail link delivers on its promise, it will represent a quantum leap (the existing option is the crowded Tambaram-Beach suburban train system, which is a few hundred metres away at Tirusulam). To augment the Metro, Chennai needs a well-planned airport bus service.
(An edit was made to this article for clarity)