Ho Thanh Binh was surprised when a custom officer at the France’s Charles de Gaulle Airport said xin chao (“hello” in Vietnamese) after being handed her passport.
“Customs officers at Vietnam’s airports are cold and won't say a word,” said the Hanoi businesswoman.
“The behavior of the staff and services at Vietnam’s airports are still far behind those at many airports abroad,” she said.
Binh’s gripes are fairly common among Vietnamese travelers. But a recent survey compiled on a Canadian woman's blog has prompted relevant authorities to conduct a thorough review of the issue and take steps to spruce up Vietnam’s airports.
The Guide to Sleeping in Airports recently listed Hanoi’s Noi Bai fifth and Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat eighth on a list of Asia’s worst airports.
"The list results often upsets one or two airports," the site's creator, Donna McSherry, told Thanh Nien News via email. "Manila NAIA1 would be an example that was not particular happy by the results, but made an effort to improve things due to intense media and public response."
The Central Aviation Authority of Vietnam's response -- which, among other things pointed out that McSherry's survey did not consider recent improvements and only drew on online travelers' feedback -- attracted wide criticism.
The resulting attention prompted an inspection by the transport ministry.
Binh, the Hanoi passenger, said that Noi Bai airport's information desks are tucked away in hidden corners of the E lobby and the T1 terminal, and most of the staffers can't provide much actual information.
“Many passengers were running around asking any uniformed person they could find, including janitors, about their flights,” she said. "Many foreign airports have instruction counters right at the entrance and are equipped with clearly positioned information displays."
At a meeting on services at Noi Bai on October 27 prompted by McSherry's survey, many representatives from management agencies and companies supplying services admitted that the capital airport is overloaded, unhygienic and staffed by inhospitable personnel.
Dang Anh Tuan of Vietnam Airlines’ Market Service Section said a Sky Team Alliance survey found only 30 percent of passengers pleased with Noi Bai's services.
Vietnam's two major airports have been consistently panned in surveys that often draw complaints about unhygienic lavatories, unfriendly staff, confusing flight and connection information and a lack of baggage trolleys, he said.
A representative of the Noi Bai Operation Center said passengers also complained about lack of seats and drinking water at the terminal, slow wifi and even a lack of toilet paper.
During the meeting, Deputy Transport Minister Pham Quy Tieu said he once made a personal call to the airport’s director after entering a bathroom whose floor was covered in wet toilet paper.
Bad monitoring system
After The Guide to Sleeping in Airports’ survey made headlines in local media, several aviation experts attributed passenger criticism to overloading.
But CAAV director Lai Xuan Thanh said overloading is not the cause.
“They have no checklist. There have no inspection system that establishes, for example, how many times a given lavatory should be cleaned per day.”
Deputy Transport Minister Tieu said relevant authorities should respect passenger feedback.
“Aviation services still have problems in many areas, including the attitude of customs officers during the check-in process.”
“Why do most airports abroad have diligent janitorial staffs but not Vietnam’s airports? Taxi services in Vietnam are also messy. We can’t blame these problems on overloading during peak hours,” he said.
Tieu said airport staff enjoy higher salaries than those working the same jobs elsewhere.
“Bad management leads to bad services. The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam must formulate an inspection plan with a checklist system that the transport ministry should review every quarter,” he said.
Vu The Phiet, director of Noi Bai airport, said his agency would set up an inspection team and install cameras to monitor staff performance.
“There will be daily and weekly reports to improve services at the airport.”