Over the past few months, passengers using Chennai airport have had to contend with collapsing false ceilings, cracking glass panels, faulty baggage ramps and stinking toilets, among other things. Frequent fliers have now begun to articulate their opinions on what privatisation of the airport could mean for services offered.

Expensive decision

If the T3 terminal in Delhi airport is anything to go by, better services could be expected at Chennai post privatisation. However, this will come at a price and an expensive one at that, say passengers. The bids to hand over Chennai airport to private operators for running and maintenance will open on December 18, and the process is expected to take at least a month.

B.K. Maruthi, 43, a government employee who flies frequently in and out of Chennai said, “I want Chennai airport to be privatised. Having been to other airports, I know that services and commodities will become more expensive. This may not be acceptable to everyone, but most travellers I believe, will be able to afford the escalation in costs. At least I will be able to walk without worrying about false ceiling panels falling on my head.”

Ever since the commissioning of the new terminals in early and mid-2013, many passengers have expressed the need for cleaner and stench-free toilets. “Though the toilets in the new terminal are better than the old ones, they could do with improvement” Mr. Maruthi said.

A recent survey by SITA, an IT provider for the air transport sector, revealed that nearly 34 per cent of Indian passengers felt the check-in and bag drop part of travelling by air was the most stressful.

D. Sudhakar Reddy, a member of the Air Passengers Association of India (APAI) said serpentine queues at check-in counters and highly-priced food items of poor quality were other issues that a private operator must immediately resolve.

Not enough counters

“We don’t have enough check-in counters during peak hours, resulting in long queues. Not just that, a few food stalls are placed at odd spots inside the departure hall and this makes the lines longer,” he said.

A few months ago, four passengers had to cancel their holiday as they suffered from food poisoning after eating at an outlet in Chennai airport, he said. “It is not as if the food at Delhi or Hyderabad airports is cheap, but at least the quality is good,” Mr. Reddy said.

Higher UDF?

But food is not the only thing that will become more expensive — passengers may have to shell out more for a User Development Fee (UDF) post March 2016 if the private operator decides to increase it. The UDF at Delhi airport ranges from Rs. 207 to Rs. 1,130

In February, the Airport Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA) fixed the UDF charges that would be levied at Chennai airport until March 31, 2016. “We cannot say if or by how much the UDF will increase at Chennai after the private operator takes over. It will be worked out using a complex formula wherein the expenses of the airport operator and the returns of the company will be looked into among other aspects,” said an AERA official.

Delhi airport sources indicate that one of the reasons for high UDF rates there is because the operator has to share his revenue with the Airports Authority of India (AAI). At Delhi airport, GMR holds a 54 per cent stake, AAI 45 per cent and Eraman Malaysia the rest.

“Before AAI signs the concession agreement with the private operator, they can demand a list of facilities the operator must bring. But as far as prices are concerned, we are not sure if AAI has any control over them,” said an AAI official.

Strong opposition

However, there is strong opposition to the proposed privatisation move, primarily from those employed at the airport, with the Airports Authority Employees Union (AAEU) and the Airports Authority Officers’ Association having staged a series of protests.

“After having spent over Rs. 2,000 crore on the airport, it is simply not justified to hand over the profit-making to a private operator. If the government plans to sell one airport after another to private players, what will happen to employees? We joined the organisation thinking that our jobs would be safe but our job security is at stake if we have to work with the private party,” said L. George, regional secretary, AAEU.

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