Aubyn Hill | Fast immigration, snail-pace baggage
Last Saturday I returned to Jamaica from an overseas business trip and was met with a very pleasant experience at the immigration stall.
There were scores of people in the line ahead of me and an immigration service officer invited myself and others to use the electronic kiosks to process our immigration formalities.
An attendant was on hand to ensure the picture page of the passport was properly deployed on the electronic scanner, if a traveller needed that assistance, but the machine was really easy to use.
Interestingly, one could decide on the picture one liked best before completing the process. That activity may come to need some supervision to help certain vain travellers to avoid seeking too many picture options before deciding on which to select.
The printout gave all the relevant passport and address information and the process was fast, very efficient and glitch-free.
At the end of that swift and seamless process with all my information on the printed slip from the kiosk, and, therefore, stored on some server somewhere, I was surprised that an immigration officer asked to see and then proceeded to tick my printed slip of paper. Why has any human being touch such a quick, efficient and error-free process?
I believe the kiosk system is new and in testing. I would recommend that they test out the last-step human review. To make this automated avenue an effortless pathway for many more travellers, scores more of the machines will have to be bought and installed. It appears to be the way to go. Can this Government afford them?
That was the good and fun part. After moving swiftly and quite joyfully through the almost-human-free immigration process, with expectations of collecting my luggage quickly and making a quick exit from the airport to my home, I arrived in the luggage hall to find a bunch of dejected travellers waiting forlornly for their luggage.
Somehow, in the same Government, two different ministries or agencies could not coordinate their efforts to get passengers very quickly out of the airport. The managers at the Norman Manley International Airport (NMIA) need to manage travellers' luggage much more efficiently.
A good place to start is fixing the creaking, cranking and very noisy conveyor belts that are used to transport luggage from the outside loading points to passengers.
The movement of passengers' bags from the airplane to the conveyor belt is inordinately slow. NMIA senior executives need to take a few minutes and watch the efficiency and speed of the immigration section.
But then again, they already travel often enough to know the speed of the immigration process - including the electronic kiosk experience.
So why does NMIA keep the equipment of the conveyor belt so old and out of date, and/or improperly serviced? Why can't the baggage service be as quick and efficient as the immigration service to facilitate the movement of passengers swiftly through the airport?
They move passengers fast in Dubai and Singapore, two cities in which they have an exponential multiple of customers and many more millions of pieces of luggage to deal with, compared to the paltry number of passengers and pieces of bags that the NMIA has to handle relatively infrequently. The conveying of bags is a rather disjointed activity. A few bags arrive at first, followed by a long, static and unproductive time period.
After a too-patient wait by eager-to-leave passengers, another bunch of bags appear on the bad-sounding conveyor system. Another interminable waiting period follows this group of bags before another set arrives in the anything-but-seamless delivery of checked luggage to their owners. This is a straightforward operational challenge that airport executives ought to have perfected long ago into a well-oiled operation that is seamless in its delivery.
Why can't we get two related operations right and dovetailed to serve citizens-taxpayers-travellers better? And why can't we get it right, and in our heads, that these services are there to help and serve 'clients' - Jamaican and tourist travellers. That sense of service to clients that the folks running the immigration operation seem to believe in, foster and nurture, is so absent among the persons who manage and deliver the baggage claim service.
Investing in good service
It is quite likely that the NMIA executives will plead the shortage of funds as one of the main impediments to fixing and maintaining the baggage handling system at Palisadoes. No doubt, there is some truth to that.
However, according to a local newspaper report last Friday: "'The Passport, Immigration and Citizenship Agency (PICA) processed 2.5 million passengers arriving at the island's airports and 2.5 million departing passengers, during the last financial year". The numbers are certainly not of the scale of Hong Kong or Singapore, but they are decent numbers from which a lot of fees have been collected.
There should be money to keep our airports well equipped, properly maintained and super efficient, if we are going to make them attractive for people to travel and deal with their baggage in Jamaica, in a comfortable and efficient, and even an attractive manner.
I suspect that practically all of the money from government agencies - Customs, PICA and a host of others - has been corralled into the Consolidated Fund to feed the Government-IMF's fiscal-consolidation programme and that super-high primary surplus target. The same shortage of money is the constant negative refrain, which is being sung rather publicly by the doctors about their supplies and hospitals, and teachers and nurses about current and back-pay.
Without substantial economic growth, the Government will find it increasingly difficult to meet the revenue target that is needed to properly maintain our physical infrastructure, and to modernise and maintain service facilities like the baggage-delivery system at the airport.
Aubyn Hill is CEO of Corporate Strategies Ltd and chairman of the Economic Advisory Council of the Leader of the Opposition.