When the truth hurts
The General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), which is in charge of the Kingdom’s airports, among other things, was understandably not pleased with the bad publicity dealt to Jeddah’s airport, dismissing the survey as being done by a Canadian woman on her blog and as unscientific. The blog in question is called “The Guide to Sleeping in Airports,” and the Canadian woman’s name is Donna McSherry, a former travel consultant, who says she started the blog in 1996 when she was unemployed.
Judging by all of the reader’s comments under the article that Arab News ran on the survey, all of them agreed that Jeddah’s airport staff, especially the passport officers, were the most rude and offensive that they had ever encountered in their lives. Tales of waiting in immigration queues for hours just to gain entry into Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah or to work are legion in the expatriate community. We Saudis certainly do not experience any of that since we get to use exclusive lanes for Saudi nationals that see us swiftly through immigration and into the baggage claim area. But once we get there, we suffer with everyone else as we await a sighting of our baggage on the arrivals belt.
GACA’s criticism that McSherry’s survey is unscientific is somewhat valid, as it is entirely based on the experiences of anonymous travelers. And as we all know, individual experiences are highly subjective. I tried to figure out what her methodology was in compiling her results, but could not find the information on her site. Instead, I clicked on a link inviting me to vote in the 2015 survey and found that the form does not ask you for any identifying information such as name or email address, which means that the same people can vote several times for the same airport and not get flagged by the system.
Notwithstanding this huge shortcoming of the site’s voting system, we must admit that the current Jeddah airport leaves much to be desired. The departure area of the North terminal is always crowded and chaotic, often with passengers camped just outside the entrance doors with huge piles of luggage. Once inside if you arrive too early, or are connecting through Jeddah and arrive too early, you will have to wait in the sorry coffee shop, as check-in counters open only three hours before flight departures. There is no free WiFi in Jeddah airport, which is annoying and unfortunate. Once you are allowed to check-in for your flight, be prepared to see check-in staff yell rudely at Asian passengers, treating them like cattle. Huge lines will then await you at immigration and most likely more humiliation if you are not Saudi or from a Gulf country. When you finally make it through all of this you arrive in an expanded duty-free area, which has massively improved in the last few years. You can now buy cell phones, watches, gold jewelry, perfume, chocolates, dates, Arabian-themed souvenirs and huge plastic jars of powdered drink mix that I saw were extremely popular with Bangladeshi workers.
We have known for a long time that Saudi airports are put to shame by the ones in our Gulf neighbors. Just look at Dubai’s glittering airport that is constantly expanding, and the new terminal in Doha. Why can’t we have airports that are just as nice, efficient and friendly as those Gulf ones? They have started a politeness campaign at Riyadh’s airport among their immigration staff in order to get them to greet passengers with a smile and be polite. Why can’t they start such a program in Jeddah? In fact, why didn’t they start such a program in Jeddah years ago, given that it is the most important gateway into the Kingdom for the millions of foreign pilgrims that arrive here every year to perform Umrah and Haj?
Jeddah airport is finally going to get a much-improved new terminal by the end of next year. This is long overdue. Let us hope that with it GACA will be able to launch a new level of service by airport staff, one where all passengers, regardless of nationality, are treated fairly, kindly and with respect. That would do wonders for the reputation of the Kingdom and Saudis. Indeed it would do much more for our reputation as a nation than glittering airport terminals could ever do on their own.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view