Thursday, March 6, 2014

Delhi Aviation Authorities Hold Airport Hotel and Guests Hostage

Terminal 3 at Delhi Airport
In her very funny book, Holy Cow, Aussie writer Sarah Macdonald writes about her first visit to India. After multiple delays in her attempt to fly home she describes the country as "Hotel California, where you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." 

I hadn't been in the country more than 10 minutes when I realized just what she meant. This is the curious story of an airport hotel where check in is difficult enough, but once you have arrived leaving is impossible.

The dramatic increase in international air travel is fueling a worldwide boom in the construction of airports and the smart planners are including on-the-premises hotels. This is a convenience for the traveler of course, but it is a revenue stream for the airport authority and in some cases can help lower the fees airlines pay to use the airport. 

View from Changi Crown Plaza Hotel
The Hyatt that is the centerpiece of Orlando International Airport in Florida for example, provided nine percent of the operating budget for the Greater Orlando Airport Authority in 2013. Frankfurt, Calgary, Paris and Singapore are some of the airports with more than one airport hotel. (More about my fantastic stay at Changi's Crown Plaza in a later post.)

En route to Delhi earlier this month, I popped in for a tour of the five star Sama Sama Kuala Lumpur Airport Hotel with a ballroom that seats 300 and pool nestled in a jungle-like garden that looks like Shangra-La. This truly is a hotel where one might never want to leave but if want to, you can.
Lobby of the five star Kuala Lumpur Airport Hotel

That is not the case at the Eaton Smart New Delhi Airport Transit Hotel which serves three kinds of customer, the international traveler who will stay in one of the 57 rooms on the secure air side of the airport and international and domestic travelers who will come to the hotel from New Delhi and will stay in one of 36 rooms on the land side of the airport. 

Eaton Smart New Delhi Airport lobby
Either way, a guest at the Eaton Smart hotel must work pretty hard to actually get a booking. Complete flight information, proof of a visa for destination and sometimes even a boarding pass must be provided to the hotel before check in. International transfer travelers will not even have access to their checked bags. A full-page of do'sand don'ts  is sent to the lucky few who, having inquired about a stay, will actually be able to book a room there.

The most interesting restriction is that on the domestic side, once a guest checks in, there's no leaving the building other than to catch ones' plane. 

When hotel manager Sharin Surendran, first explained all this to me, and believe me, it took some time, I thought he was joking. "This can't be a working business model," I opined. He agreed. “You have people who want to use this hotel,” he told me. But the vast majority of inquiries cannot be accommodated due to the peculiar rules of the Civil Aviation Authorities.
Waiting out a layover in the terminal
Keeping the airport secure is the reason given for the rules. Never mind that airports around the world, including the United States (home to some pretty peculiar security practices) have been able to establish secure airport hotels. Security is just one issue. Marketing is another.

Eaton can’t sell rooms to airline crews because pilots and flight attendants don't want to be confined to quarters during a layover. Further, the 3000 international transfer passengers predicted when Indira Gandhi International Airport’s snazzy new Terminal 3 opened haven’t materialized.

View from the dining room of Eaton's international hotel
We get about 800-850 passengers a day in Delhi, Surendran told me. Of those, only about one to two percent have a layover long enough to make checking into the hotel worth the effort or the price, about $150. Surendran said, “It’s not related to the price of the room, it’s more that the number of airlines hasn’t grown.”

View from the domestic Eaton hotel
Having had the opportunity to use the hotel twice, it is troubling that government decision makers have made it so difficult to patronize the hotel. The rooms are extremely comfortable, quiet and well appointed. Food at the restaurant/bar is delicious, enhanced by the terrific view of the airfield. There’s even a small gym and spa where I had a massage that did much to help me get over my jet lag. These are the kind of services that travelers appreciate – and frequent travelers have come to expect. 

It’s a shame that the hotel's investors, who Surendran described as “first time hotel owners who put their hands in the most complex operation,” are having difficulty making money on what anywhere else in the world would be a sure thing. 

Illogical, bureaucratic government decisions shouldn't threaten a promising and consumer and airline-friendly aviation enterprise, especially these topsy-turvy days of air travel when anything-can-happen. In the great scheme of things, 93 rooms at a mid-sized airport isn't such a big deal. It's just another example of how, even when things seem promising in Indian aviation, something is sure to come along to disappoint.  


Ron Kuhlmann said...

God help us all if the Indian Aviation Authority begins to inflict itself on ground oerations as well. It just proves that no real bureaucrat is ever happy being able to screw up in only one area.

Christine Negroni said...

Ron that is pretty funny, you've made me laugh.

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