The word “apron” has several meanings in the English language. Most commonly it is a garment, fastened at the back, worn in the front of the body as a protective cover for clothing. It is also the covering along a shoreline to protect against erosion. Then again, it could be the area of a boxing ring floor that extends beyond the ropes. At an airport, an apron is a paved strip outside the terminal or hangar used for loading or unloading passengers. The word “airside” on the other hand, has only one meaning—the part of the airport between the aircraft up to the security check, where the general public does not have access. (How’s that for a quick morning dose of airport terminology?)
Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns
Well, what unites the two words, apron and airside, are buses. The buses which transport passengers from the terminal to the aircraft, are called, interchangeably, “apron buses” or “airside transfer buses”. They are utilized in cases where there is no aerobridge. Unfortunately in India, that would mean for most flights in most airports, but that’s a different story. Given that we are compelled to use them, it’s worth focusing on their quality.
Since these are special buses used for the specific purpose of transporting passengers and their hand luggage between aeroplanes and airport passenger terminals, regulations concerning maximum vehicle width do not apply to them. So they can be longer and wider than normal buses, with full length double door, air conditioning, capacious headroom in the compartment and flat, low flooring which is just 2ft from the floor and has a ramp for wheelchair passengers. That’s what they should be, ideally. That’s what they are in many airports abroad. One doesn’t even have to travel to other countries to realize that, the images on the Internet of ravishingly beautiful apron buses, are enough to make one feel a pang about what Indian passengers are missing.
The most glaring lacuna in the buses provided by Indian carriers is that they have ridiculously steep steps. The next time you board one of them, observe your co-passengers. Watch the elderly lady wince as her arthritic knee hurts with the strain of climbing that high step. Or the young mother holding an infant with one hand haul herself in, holding on tight to the railing. As does the heavily pregnant lady. And even the person with a big size hand luggage. Like in all public places in India, no one has thought of wheelchair passengers reaching the plane with some dignity. It’s strange how designers of facilities in our country assume all the users will always be fighting fit. In a SpiceJet bus, I have been horrified to see a wheelchair lifted into the bus by two of the airline’s workers, which apart from being mildly humiliating to the occupant of the wheelchair, is also dangerous. A ramp would make the arrival of the wheelchair passenger less of a spectacle. Ultra-low-floor buses which have “kneeling” suspension would allow the floor to be lowered almost to the road level so that those on wheelchairs can board easily, as can all those who are not up to climbing hill-like steps. In the US, these buses are mandatory for public transport.
There are apron buses in the world where the door slides unobtrusively. In the buses of our domestic airlines, it is a folding door which opens outward into the passengers’ faces. As passengers scramble aboard, the menacing hinges look as though they have the potential for a freak accident involving a small child’s fingers.
Devesh Agarwal, an aviation analyst who is the editor of the site Bangaloreaviation.com, says the problem is that there is no requirement by the government on the type of buses to be provided at airports, and with airlines doing self-handling, the emphasis is on cost, not safety or comfort. “The lack of adequate laws requiring physically challenged access or addressing liability in the event of a fall when climbing or descending the stairs adds to the lack of these buses either at airports or in public transport. So, the buses are available, but they are expensive and neither airlines nor GSPs (ground service providers) have any incentive or threat to provide a better bus.”
Agarwal recalls that when he used to visit Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam more than 12 years ago, at that time, Tan Son Nhat airport was a very basic airport. “Even then, in a communist country with virtually no infrastructure, there were these special airport buses,” he says.
The few low-floor buses that are there are deployed by the airlines in their home base (Jet and Kingfisher in Mumbai; Air India in Delhi) where they want to put their best foot forward. Agarwal is willing to wager that in smaller airports there are many accidents that happen due to unsuitable buses for which airlines can be sued, but no one does it out of fear of our long litigation processes.
But then there are airports such as the Birsa Munda Airport of Ranchi, which until recently did not even have an airside transfer bus. Passengers would brave rain and sunshine and trek to the aircraft. The director of the airport said on the occasion of introducing the lone bus to be shared by different airlines, “To facilitate air travel of passengers during inclement weather conditions, the Airports Authority of India has pressed a bus into service. It will ensure safety of passengers and shelter from rain and storm as they will no longer have to walk up to the aircraft.” This almost epic pronouncement happened after relentless complaints of passengers every day to the Airports Authority of India. Now passengers are aghast that it is a completely unsuitable high floor bus with a narrow door. They should keep complaining until airlines provide ultra-low-floor buses as a basic service at all airports. There’s no reason not to except that they would have to spend more, and of course, the fact that no one’s looking.
Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues.