Bishwanath Ghosh travels through the newly opened airports in these cities and finds namma terminal wanting

It’s usually a dash to the airport, never a leisurely drive. You have one eye on the clock on your mobile and another on the passing landmarks so you know how far you have reached. Finally, that green hill appears on the horizon and you know you’ve made it — just in time — for, Chennai airport sits right across. You get out of the cab and run to the departure gate, forgetting all about the hill; really, when did you ever pause to have a good look at it?

But now you can stand and stare at the hill, even if only for a few moments, because the cab will take you up a ramp right to the first floor of the newly-opened glass-walled Chennai airport terminal — that’s where the departure gates are located. From that height you suddenly see your own city in a new light: a majestic view of the hill, far removed from the madness of the traffic you see below. Until moments ago you were part of that madness.

“Not bad,” I tell myself as I enter the imposing glass building after showing my ticket and ID proof to the sentry. My destination: Kolkata.

‘Swanky’; ‘state-of-the-art’; ‘world-class’ — these are some of the adjectives the papers have been full of ever since the new terminal began to be constructed, alongside the now old one, some five years ago. But the first thing that strikes me as soon as I enter the terminal, hoping to be swept away by things swanky and world-class, is the music. Playing softly in the background is the instrumental version of the famous Rafi number from Junglee: ‘Ehsaan tera hoga mujh par’. Funny, as considering this was Chennai, one would have expected piano strains of Illayaraja’s ‘Raja raja chozhan naan’.

By the time I have my bag x-rayed, collect my boarding pass and go past security, the song has changed to ‘Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai’ (from Guide). The departure lounge resembles a newly-built house which has been occupied even before the final finishing touches are in place. Carpenters and painters are still setting up kiosks. The toilet floors are wet and many urinals are barricaded with ‘Do not use’ tape.

In one corner, where ghostly silence prevails, there are rows of brand-new chairs coated with dust. Two of them with broken legs look like see-saws. This corner belongs to an airport that has been long deserted, not newly opened.

During the stroll, I realise how small the departure lounge is. It appears no bigger than the one at Pune airport and maybe slightly bigger than Madurai’s. Just 10 boarding gates on the first floor and four more on the ground floor. That’s it? The last time I flew out of Delhi, I had boarded from gate no. 45.

I go down on the escalator to check out the departure lounge on the ground floor — there are two sets of escalators to take you down — and have a sandwich there. When I want to return to the first floor, I find no stairs or escalators to take me up. All four escalators are cascading in the downward direction. I mildly panic: how do I get back?

Then I spot the lift. There I find myself in the company of a man wearing an identity card around his neck. He owns one of the kiosks being set up. I ask him if taking the lift is the only way to get back to the first floor. “You are right,” he tells me. “They have not planned things right. Come, I will show you something.”

Back on the first floor, he points to one of the standalone air-conditioning units from which water is dripping. A large, circular wet patch has formed on the shiny floor. “Sometimes they keep a tub to collect the water. But how long can you keep collecting? Water will soon seep through the ceiling to the floor below. Not only this, even the toilets have been choking. This airport is a joke,” he says.

Perhaps the place will look more cheerful over the coming weeks or months as these problems are fixed and more shops open, but it cannot match the class of the airports at Hyderabad or Bangalore, leave alone Delhi or Mumbai. Had the new terminal opened five years ago it might have inspired awe, but right now it has turned out to be too small to be termed futuristic. Will it be able to hold the growing passenger traffic even for another 10 years?

As I go past the boarding gate to take my flight, stepping over a half-eaten samosa on the floor, I wonder: “Really, what was wrong with the old airport?”

Two hours later I arrive at the new Kolkata airport, which opened only last month. I try to forget my surname in order to be objective, but I can’t help admire the arrival hall — yes, this is swanky. My bag arrives on conveyor belt no. 7 (if I remember right, there were more belts), so you can imagine the size.

As I drive out of the airport to a billboard showing Mamata Banerjee greeting visitors with folded hands, I look back at the structure: it is imposing. What’s wrong with Kolkata; I mean, what’s right with Kolkata?

The departure from Kolkata the next day turns out to be even more impressive. The glass-walled lounge is huge and the air-conditioning freezing. The waiting seats are more comfortable; there are even reclining couches. The ceiling has murals with large Bengali letters (Karunanidhi would have so loved to replicate the idea in Chennai). But no Hindi or Bengali songs here: only soft instrumental, the kind you would hear in hotel lounges.

I am to board from gate no. 24 (there are 25 in all). As a traveller you don’t feel ‘international’ enough unless you are boarding from gate no. 25 or 45 or 62; in Kolkata, the much-maligned city, I finally feel that way.

Back in Chennai, I collect my bag from belt no. 4. There are only four belts. Really, the old arrival hall was swanky.

At the taxi-booking counter I find the fares have gone up; but for a change, I get into a black-and-yellow Swift Dzire instead of a smelly Ambassador. That’s the only thing I feel good about. Otherwise I miss the old Chennai airport.

Keywords: Chennai airport

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