I am writing this aboard an Emirates flight from Dubai, floating 32,000 feet above the sea, with 10,000km to go before we arrive in Toronto. My wife and I arrived in Dubai last night, where we were treated like the valuable passengers that we are. No, we are not special. Just ordinary travellers, like millions of others, that bring cash into Dubai’s economy.
Dubai airport was spotlessly clean as usual, and devoid of openly gun-toting soldiers that make one feel as though one is in a war zone. Don’t get me wrong. I am not deceived by the innocuous looks on the faces of folk donning crisp white robes and head gear. Some of those women in burkas, walking around as though they are passengers, are probably trained commandos whose sole purpose is to ensure my safety. Those men over in the corner, engaged in banter, may well be transformed into purveyors of deadly force should any fools threaten our security.
However, they do not display their ferocity. To do so would be to cause unnecessary alarm and discomfort to passengers. After all, terrorists are not deterred by the presence of armed people in military attire. They are deterred by excellent preparedness, great and credible intelligence, and the knowledge that their potential target is well secured by well-trained and well-armed invisible men and women.
Getting to the airport departures area from our hotel was a piece of cake. None of that punishment meted out to departing passengers at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.
We arrived at Entebbe more than three hours before our scheduled departure time. As usual our car, loaded with our suitcases, could not access the departures level. That is a privilege reserved for what Ugandans call VIPs. Yes, in my country of birth, I am not considered a very important person. It is in foreign lands, including Canada, my adopted home, that I am a VVIP (very, very important passenger.) Not me alone, but everyone that chooses to travel through their airports. We are the reason they are in business. We are all VIPs. I am not a blind Ugandan patriot. Indeed, my patriotism compels me to tell you that Entebbe Airport sucks. Here is why.
We arrive in the parking lot, under a blazingly hot sun. We look around for carts to help us get our luggage up the incline to the departures area. You might as well look for a snow plough in Mombasa. I see people carrying suitcases on their heads, an option laden with potential orthopaedic consequences. A police officer, boiling underneath a black uniform, totting a killer weapon, helpfully advises that I walk to the arrivals area in the terminal building to get the carts. Yes, I must walk hundreds of metres to retrieve carts, then back to the parking lot, load them with our suitcases, and trek back up the steep slope to the departures area.
Happily, I come upon two airport workers who agree to assist me. They bring the carts, load them, and ask us to follow them up that steep incline. The gentleman, sweating under the heat, pushes the thing up the hill. Then a big thud. One case has fallen off the cart. Poor thing has been caught by a metal grate that covers a drainage path. The lady stops her heavy-laden cart, comes to the rescue and helps us reload the case onto the other cart. We eventually make it to the departures entrance. A very long, amorphous queue of humans and their luggage is attempting to enter through the single-entry door. Security checks are in progress. People are weaving in and out, amoeba-like. We make it through. Our luggage is then examined through the high-tech security machine. Our hired assistants stay with us, cheerfully loading and unloading the cases, all the way to the check-in counter. They show a professionalism, enhanced by that Ugandan friendliness and smiles that we must never lose. Check-in is smooth. The Emirates staff are very courteous and efficient. We go to the immigration area. There are hundreds of passengers. Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, South African and Ethiopian Airways are all departing shortly. The chaotic irregular queues, inching their way towards five overworked and stressed immigration officers, are not surprising.
The inconvenience is relieved by a humorous yellow sign above one line, advertising a FAST TRACK for “VIPs”, First Class and Business Class ticket holders, the Disabled, United Nations staff and airline crew. There is no fast track, of course. Just one inefficient mess that is not the fault of the hapless officers who are doing their best to cope.
My immigration officer advises me to scan my boarding pass at a machine next to her cubicle. The thing refuses to read the barcode. Another officer, evidently persuaded that I am clueless about scanning these things, yells at me to go to “that lady over there.” I smile. The lady attempts a scan. Her machine is on strike. Nothing happens. She smiles and waves me on. It has been 90 minutes since I arrived at the airport. I can now rest my feet in the departure lounge. I know that a new airport is not a priority for our country. Entebbe, as is, can be made more efficient and passenger friendly, without spending a fortune. First, treat all passengers as VIPs, because we are. This is an attitude change that costs nothing and generates revenue.
Second, allow passengers to disembark and unload their luggage at the departures level. Cars should be allowed a maximum of five minutes, with no other parking allowed on that level – not even for so-called VIPs. The security concerns about cars “up there” are not supported by expert evidence. Terrorists do not need to drive cars. They can carry their lethal luggage on their heads.
Third, provide carts next to the unloading points. It is not a favour. It is good business.
Fourth, improve passenger flow during peak hours by increasing the number of staff that scrutinise passengers. Fifth, get rid of the so-called VIP lounge and merge it with the Karibuni Lounge to create one large facility for first and business class ticket holders – regardless of their titles. Create a Fast Track immigration check point next to this merged lounge. And while at it, work on the air-conditioning system and thoroughly clean up the toilets. Save passengers from that ammonia smell that forces one into a breath holding attack and a hurriedly incomplete evacuation of one’s bladder. See you soon.