Under my byline

Unfairport

Posted in Architecture/Design by Rrishi on 13 September 2010

BS blog 19

Last week a design-related experience left me angry and unsettled.

We went to pick up a relative at the new international airport terminal. The plane was to land around 3 am, so we were on the Gurgaon highway at about that time. The lane leading to the international airport exit was marked, on the big green signboards above the highway, thus: “I.G.I.A. Terminal 3″.

Help!

If you don’t know what IGIA is, or what Terminal 3 might be, you will not know that the sign actually points you towards the “International Airport”. That’s bad design. (Mind you, the domestic airport exit is marked “Domestic Airport”.)

This was our first visit to T3. As we neared the new terminal we had to decide what lane to get in for the premium lot at Arrivals.

Help!

No clear answer! All sorts of cars had slowed down at the same spot so that the drivers could figure out which lane to enter. We picked the lane that said “ARRIVAL” and “Premium Lane”.

No! Wrong choice! A poor securityman had to wave us down and come jogging up to the car to tell us we were not allowed in this lane. But arrivals, premium? No, sir, not allowed, take the the other lane. So we reversed all the way out and took the other lane.

That lane took us along the facade of the arrivals hall. We stopped where we saw two CISF constables, and one of them very politely told us to go to Gates 4, 5 and 6. So we moved on, but to our consternation all we saw from the road was large pillars, numbered 13, 14, 15…

Help!

We reached the very end of the terminal, and pulled over. Ah, it turned out that the numbering of the pillars has nothing to do with the numbering of the gates. Way behind pillars 13, 14, 15, etc., were Gates 4, 5 and 6. Not plainly visible from the car lane. So we got out of the car.

Our driver said he’d try and wait there, or else circle around. The main parking lot was not directly accessible from the end of the terminal and looked like a hassle to enter and leave at short notice, what with access control and multiple floors.

We walked toward the terminal.

Help!

We had to cross two lanes and two broad strips of pavement before we reached kerbside. No zebra crossings were marked.

But there wasn’t much traffic, so that was OK.

One intervening lane was a taxi lane. The other was the premium lane to which we had been denied access. There were expensive-looking private cars and luxury rental cars parked there. Why were we not allowed to use the lane? We had been perfectly ready to pay.

At the airport facade we decided to enter the Visitor’s Lounge. Where’s the entry gate?

Help!

It was small and tucked behind a large pillar.

Help!

The securityman sitting there said we had to walk to the next gate to buy an entry ticket. So we did; a good 50 metres. Next to the ticket booth (with its polite operator) was a gate also leading into the visitor area.

Help!

We were not allowed in. Go back to the first gate, said this guard. So back we went.

Inside, the air smelled nice. It was also cold, so we went to use the toilets. The door creaked and groaned so madly, loudly and slowly that we were hearing it still as we walked out of the washroom.

The relative arrived. She was very pleased with the airport interiors, especially with the Paresh Maity paintings inside (she is a Maity fan). Pushing the luggage trolley, I phoned the driver. The poor fellow had been chased away from his distant lane and had then parked and was chatting with some policeman. I spoke to the policeman over the phone and asked him whether we could use the premium lane. Yes, of course. Phew, we thought, no need to push this trolley 100 metres (I measured the distance on Google Earth) to the distant car lane.

Help!

Our car still wasn’t allowed into the premium lane. So we started the long trek with the trolley.

Help!

There was no way to get the trolley off the kerb. No slope, just a vertical drop. All around us, individuals and families and old people were doing their best to get the trolleys down without spilling their luggage. I walked a long way looking for a walkable section, but there wasn’t one. So we huffed and puffed and lifted the trolley off the kerb.

Help!

We had to get the loaded trolley on and off two more pavement sections before we reached the car lane. Ouch.

Someone at the airport seemed to have belatedly realised this disaster and one (one!) sloping ramp had just been cut out of the kerb and cemented. There was caution tape around it, because the cement wasn’t yet dry.

Help!

That last section of the furthest car lane outside the Arrivals gates was busy with many cars and people. It was a very Indian operation (think functional chaos) getting the car close enough to the kerb to enable us to load the luggage without too much trouble. So much for streamlined.

Phew. We were done. We headed home. But I was sweating and cursing the thoughtless people who had laid out this part of the airport, and those who were supposed to administer the premium lane.

The only airport I know well enough to compare T3 to is Washington DC’s Dulles International. There, too, you exit onto car lanes. But the parking is straight ahead, it’s surface parking, and what’s more, there are zebra crossings and the pavements slope gently so that you can waft your luggage comfortably towards your car or one of the airport-city shuttle vans. Dulles is nothing fancy, but it’s infinitely more convenient.

So: go ahead and complain about iffy Commonwealth Games infrastructure, and cheer instead the capable Delhi Metro. But don’t forget to ask why, when the new airport will probably cost Rs 16,500 crore ($3.5 billion, which flyers are now being told to help pay), the contractors didn’t bother to find a designer who could have helped them get the basic inside-outside interface design right and user-friendly.

The airport is not fully operational yet. Imagine the chaos when all domestic and international air travel through Delhi converges on T3! The mind quails; but the spirit is Indian, so it will adjust.

A commenter on the original blog on company webspace pointed out how forbidding the airport would be for a disabled person. She was quite right. Responding to her I looked into the figures a little bit, and added this:

It did strike me that perhaps the airport is just too big: does it really need to be this particular gigantic size? China has bigger airports, but China does a lot of things to make an impression. Why should India?

No Indian airport is among the top 30 busiest in the world, according to Wikipedia. According to the New Delhi airport website, T3’s maximum capacity in the “first phase” will be 34 million annually. At full capacity that would place it at 25th of 30 in the Wikipedia list (2009 figures), between Charlotte Douglas International and Miami International, both in the USA. Oh well.

Amsterdam Schiphol, to take one example among several in the busiest 30, is a relatively tiny place, yet it managed 43.5 million passengers in 2009 (it was 14th in the list).

In 2007, Dulles in DC managed 24.7 million. Beijing Capital International had 65 million-plus in 2009. But the leader is and has been for a while Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, in Atlanta, USA: a staggering 88 million-plus passengers last year — way ahead of all the rest.

The first two images in this post are from the gallery page of the New Delhi airport website.

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