Benazir Bhutto International Airport: A nightmare that doesn’t end

Published: April 21, 2017

The recent assault on the female passengers is the apical point of a culture of aggressiveness among security personnel at BBIA.

Alas, it was only a matter of time before the “Worst Airport in the World-2014” would crawl back into news headlines by having female passengers assaulted on its premises.

Are we dismayed? Yes.

Surprised? Not at all.

A hair-raising video has gone viral recently showing a woman passenger – a Norwegian national – being beaten up by a female Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) official at Benazir Bhutto International Airport (BBIA) Islamabad.

The video begins with what appears to be the person behind the camera arguing with the security personnel on why they aren’t helping a woman being beaten behind a screen. As screams continue in the background, a male security officer is seen making excuses for why the assault should be allowed to go on unhindered, before ordering the person making the video to go away.

The woman suddenly appears out in the open – dupatta-less and visibly distraught – crying about her daughter being beaten. Soon afterwards, the woman herself is attacked by a female FIA officer; thrashed, grabbed by the hair and swung around, in a way that I can only assume violates some procedural code. Staff members quietly stand by, as if watching a play.

What sparked this grotesque incident is shockingly trivial. According to the mother, her daughter noticed the absence of toilet paper in the bathroom and informed a staff member. The FIA officer was infuriated by the request, because someone as high up in the staff hierarchy as her obviously has nothing to do with something as undignified as bathroom maintenance. Her unexpected rudeness resulted in a spat between the female passengers and the airport staff, resulting in the former having their boarding cards torn up, and being physically assaulted.

Ordinarily, this harrowing video should’ve been enough to attract universal condemnation, but when has the internet ever failed to challenge our faith in human decency?

Other videos uploaded on the internet show the woman arguing bitterly with airport staff. At one point, she is seen going behind the counter and attempting to snatch what appears to be her passport or boarding pass from an official’s hand.

These videos have become the basis of mortifying victim-blaming. Many on the internet have asserted that the woman got what she deserved by acting aggressively (although, never violently) towards the female passenger.

This is a defence strategy perfect by and most commonly associated with the Indian forces in Kashmir, as they attempt to justify their use of disproportionate force against rule-breaking citizens. The underlying idea is that an empowered officer of the law – a professional that has been meticulously trained to handle aggressive passengers – is allowed to be less disciplined than a middle-aged civilian lady.

This is not a sporadic case. It is an acute symptom of a general malady of irresponsible and uncivilised behaviour that we have all learned to expected from the security staff at BBIA.

The staff at most American airports are nicer to you even as they racially profile you, than the perpetually disgruntled personnel manning the Islamabad airport. Arriving at this airport after an international flight, one notices that the technology involved in the production and installation of rope barriers for queues hasn’t arrived before you. This results in rampant queue jumping, with ample pushing and shoving. The staff’s lack of civility and utter apathy towards the mayhem is easily noted.

In 2014, BBIA was named the worst airport in the world, with one traveller comparing it to ‘central prison’. Aggressive security checks, poor crowd management, unclean environment, all add up to a nightmare that a frequent flier from Rawalpindi or Islamabad can never seem to escape.

According to the surveyor, Sleeping in Airports, one traveller reported,

“Security staff are rude mannered, will not respond to your queries like you are not there.”

By 2015, BBIA descended through the list of world’s worst airports to number nine. By 2016, the airport was out of the bottom-10 list entirely, while the Jeddah International Airport maintains its losing streak.

The progress seen over the last three years can be attributed to extensive renovation, new facilities, and improved general cleanliness. Clearly, there is hope for improvement.

However, there is still much to be desired. Our foremost concern is the epidemic of unfriendliness and non-cooperation by the staff at BBIA. Passengers or customers often mirror the demeanour of the staff they are dealing with. A facility run by staff that is overworked, undertrained, or anatomically unable to smile is extremely likely to drag the BBIA back to the list of 10 worst airports, or at best, curtail further progress.

The recent assault on the female passengers is the apical point of a culture of aggressiveness among security personnel at BBIA. It is not enough to suspend a few of them, by their misfortune of having been caught on tape. It’s time to start re-training the personnel, and introducing them to the power of politeness.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (twitter.com/FarazTalat)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Ijaz Mir

    What a great country ? Please declare this year as visit Pakistan. visit the most violent airport authorities. Who can beat up female passangers.Recommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    jeez i wonder what you would have done in her position? when you, a figure of authority, is being harassed and physically assaulted by a customer? Fight back or surrender?
    Recommend

  • Simla

    I wonder if the Pakistanis can write a paragraph without shoehorning Kashmir into it.Recommend