Immigration experience at BIA

Friday, 25 November 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



By Bandula Jayatilaka

During the last 39 years I have travelled to and from Colombo BIA many times in peak and off peak periods. I experienced the worst service time at Immigration about two days ago. 

There were several long lines (queues) going towards the immigration counters. Usually before this last chaotic experience, the immigration service was efficient. There were queues formed in front of each desk and I could choose the queue I want to be in and depending on the efficiency of the officer I would get a satisfactory service. The waiting time in the queue is usually only few minutes. But last time I had to wait close to an hour in the queue. 

When we consider the smaller number of people arriving at BIA and compare that with some of the world’s busiest airports such as New York, Chicago, London, Tokyo and (sometimes) Atlanta, this was a worse waiting time at an immigration queue and highly unacceptable.

I observed what was happening at the BIA. There were long queues and each queue was made to be served by several counters. Only one customer (visitor) was allowed to go to the counter at a time. If a person standing at the front of the queue is not observant and/or looking at just one counter all the time, she would be delaying the processing of the queue irrespective of a counter becoming free. 

If a person is observant and a counter that is not the closest one becomes free, then she has to walk a longer distance to the counter. As a result, the officer will have more idling time. In both of these situations there would be either idling time of an officer or holding time of the queue. 

In some of the busiest airports in the world, one queue is served by several counters. However, they have some system to direct the visitor to a free counter. In this case, the counters have to be numbered and/or counters will have to have some indicator to indicate that it is free. If the counter is numbered, the guiding person can call out the free counter number and if any other indicator is present the visitor can identify the free counter. 

Even some airports that are busier than BIA such as New Delhi airport use multiple queues for foreign tourists and then a queue is served by a single counter or two adjacent counters. As a result the queues are shorter and the walking distance from the queue to the counter is shorter than when having a single queue.

Another practice we had at BIA earlier (if I remember it correctly) was if a couple or a family was travelling together they could go to the counter together. During the last time each person has to go to the counter separately. That was alright if the queues were short and some of the major airports follow that practice. 

However, there is an advantage of a family going together to the immigration officer. For a family flying together there are pieces of data common to all of them, which would make the officer more productive – the cognitive burden on the officer would be less because without switching to a completely new set of data he would be processing more than one person.

After waiting for more than an hour in the queue, I managed to go to a counter. I inquired from the immigration officer the reason for the mess. His answer was “they are trying a zigzag method and it takes more time for the visitors to the come to the counter”. 

When I told him that was my worst experience at immigration counters at BIA in my travel for a long time, he urged me to write to the immigration administrators at BIA and they often listen to the customers when the officers’ voices were not heard. Apparently someone might have seen the zigzag method was not going to work.

When an existing system is changed it is necessary to do a proper study of the existing system – this involves looking at the customer/visitor behaviour, service times, queue lengths, etc. Then it is necessary to analyse the needs properly and the available resources, capacities etc. Otherwise, the changes can be worse than the status quo.

It was encouraging to see the positive attitude of an officer. A significant number of visitors arriving at BIA are there after long flights or long stopovers and some are sleep deprived and tired, etc. Some of them might want to reach their hotels or houses as soon as possible to get some rest. We must be able to serve such visitors efficiently, courteously and in the friendliest manner instead of just looking at foreign tourists as ‘money bags’.

If we want to become an attractive tourist destination, a convenient and welcoming airport with efficient and courteous services are very important. Efficiency at immigration is one of the places a visitor encounters local experience. So please make it more pleasant to the visitors and look at it from a human perspective before making changes. I wish that there was someone at the airport who could intervene when they saw the unsatisfactory long lines.