The safety of Chennai’s airport: simple to get around?
Colombo (Sri Lanka), January 31st 2011

Terrorism is a hot topic in India. As in the US, India is also obsessed by everything that has to do with terrorism. The reason is that also India is often targeted by terrorists, Islamic terrorist groups from abroad and freedom fighters and Maoists groups from inside the country. And that’s the reason that also most airports in India are secured like forts. The airport of India’s fourth largest metropolis, Chennai, is no exception.

Chennai is the city in India from where we fly to Colombo in Sri Lanka. Our flight departs around midnight, but because the check-out time of our hotel is noon, we decided to spend the rest of the time at the airport. Present-day modern airports are easily compared with shopping malls with restaurants, coffee joints, comfortable waiting areas and even WIFI to check your email. But not in Chennai. Even before we can enter the departure hall, we are stopped by an armed soldier who wants to check our ticket. His message is clear; passengers are only allowed in the airport three hours before the scheduled departure of their flight. But if we ask him to make an exception because it’s to hot outside to wait, he gives his approval to enter the airport. However, it makes no sense. There are no facilities at all. Even chairs are missing; at least before you pass the immigration counters. It doesn’t take long before we decide to take the train back to the city centre of Chennai to spend the time over there. We leave our luggage at the left luggage counter, but also this airport facility is inadequate. It isn’t only very expensive, but when we got back to collect our luggage, we noticed that they went through Ivonne’s backpack in search of valuables.

We are now within three hours of our departure, so it’s time to check in. However, it isn’t easy to determine what process we have to follow in the chaotic departure hall. We are flying with the price fighter Spicejet who has no fixed domain in the hall, like other airlines have. We eventually have to scan our luggage in one part of the hall, and have to queue again at mobile check-in counters in another part of the departure hall. The fact that the airline is cheap (€ 22.50 all inclusive per person for the Chennai – Colombo flight) is probably also the reason why there isn’t enough staff. The organizational skills of the young staff aren’t good, and besides that, they are easy to influence by the jump queuing and assertive Indian passengers who think that they can still ‘arrange’ things at the counter, like checking in oversized and overweight luggage. After we checked in our luggage, we queue again at the immigration counters. We get our exit stamp without any hassle and walk to the final stage, the security check.

As expected, also this queue is long. When it’s almost our turn to put our cabin luggage on the x-ray belt and to walk through the metal detector, a toddler crawls over the floor in search for some distraction. It doesn’t take long before she notices an electricity socket in the floor which provides the metal detector with electricity. As often in Asia, also this socket is supplied with an on-off-switch. And what’s nicer for a young kid than to play with a switch. Within seconds, the toddler uses her little fingers to switch on and off the socket. The lights on the metal detector show that it is switched on and off in a high frequency. It doesn’t take long before the father of the little girl notices that this can’t be the intention. He picks his daughter form the floor, but she switched just enough times to disable the metal detector, which means that from that moment on, the detector doesn’t make a sound anymore when somebody passes the machine with metals. And the funniest part of the story is that nobody of the security staff notices the conk out of this essential part of the security process. And that is not very surprising, because most security staff doesn’t make the impression that they want to do a good job. Chatting with each other has the highest priority and the guy behind the screen of the x-ray machine has noticeably difficulties to keep his eyes open.

But when his eyes are open, he doesn’t have them in his pockets. He asks one of his colleagues to search a bag of an Indian family. Within seconds, the fish is caught; a small plastic bottle of orange coloured Fanta. The security guy tells the family that liquids are not allowed. At almost all airports in the world, this half a litre of Fanta would have been thrown in a litter bin. But this security guy probably thinks that that is exaggerated. He must think that if they drink something from the bottle without dying instantly, the liquid content isn’t that harmful. First, the child of the family first takes some drinks, and when also grandma proves that the content is no bomb, the security guy is satisfied. But what he did not see is that, when he was observing the ‘drink your Fanta process’, the next passenger got away with a full bottle of water, at least that is what we hope it is. The guy behind the x-ray machine must have had a nap again. But again, he is not sleeping constantly, because within a minute, another bag needs attention. This time the official finds a ‘lethal weapon’ in the form of a jumping rope from which the grips are Disney characters. The child of the family, whose toy it probably is, looks very disappointed when the security official confiscates the jumping rope. Ivonne and I look at each other amused but also stupefied, while we are knotting the long and strong laces of our hiking boots, which are just checked thoroughly. Are these shoelaces less dangerous than the colourful Disney jumping rope of the little kid? We don’t think so.

It isn’t difficult to conclude that it is relatively easy to take something on a plane in India that doesn’t belong there. But as often before, we are not really surprised about how ineffective Indian security processes can be. They are for example very astonished by the fact that Islamic terrorists can enter the country so easily to commit attacks, like they did some years ago on the luxury hotel in Mumbai. As a result, the Indians closed the Pakistani border even more hermetic, because that’s where they think the terrorists came from. They also made it more difficult for foreigners to obtain visa’s, which means that it also much more difficult for good-willing tourists, and their hard-needed dollars, to come to India. But what the Indians didn’t get so far is, is the fact their border with Nepal is completely open, which means that all terrorists can cross this border without even the slightest chance to get caught. Unbelievable! But there are a lot more things in India that are unbelievable. And that’s why we say again, with a cynical undertone: Incredible India!, referring to slogan used by the Indian Tourism Authorities to market India as a tourist destination.

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