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Shambolic Sydney Airport

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Not for the first time we've arrived back in Australia at an ungodly hour, knackered, to be confronted by a shambolic mess at Kingsford-Smith Airport. This time we found ourselves in a surging mass (three B747s' worth) of people milling around the baggage claim area and attempting to join a Customs queue which was so ill-defined as to be almost indefinable. For want of any clear signals, people were unwittingly breaking into lines under the impression that they were joining their end points, and tempers were short. This chaotic mess could have been avoided with some simple separator barriers and just one - one - official to impose order.

Once outside, we tried to find the Murrays coach for Canberra and again found a scene of confusion as weary and worried passengers bound for not only our destination but the domestic terminals (that's for non-through-booked pax), all departing from the same small area. Again, not a single official to sort things out. The customers had to do that for themselves by quizzing passing bus drivers and passing the word around among themselves. God help any non-English-speakers.

Of course there's the over-arching problem of having two domestic terminals a full mile away from the international terminal, with only inefficient shuttle bus connections instead of the obvious solution (a fast light rail link). And the international terminal, over 30 years old and architecturally mediocre to begin with, is now looking distinctly second-rate and shoddy. This is not helped by the fact that the airport operator (the government having outsourced management to the Macquarie Group for short-term monetary gain) is obviously skimping on basic maintenance. In the toilet I visited, for example, the doors on two of the stalls couldn't be secured, and the place that should have held a liquid soap dispenser was just a hole in the wall.

All this contrasted poorly with our arrival at San Francisco some weeks earlier, where immigration and customs formalities were well-organised, efficient and polite, despite the need for all incoming pax to be interviewed and electronically fingerprinted.

I should say that our immigration and customs officials were, as always, good ambassadors for Australia - efficient, courteous and friendly. But the environment that they have to work in is too embarrassing for words.

Then there's the airport-city rail link, another privately-operated rip-off. I believe the fare for this short trip is $12 each way? In contrast, when we caught a fast BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train from a remote station in Oakland City to SFO, the train pulled right into the international terminal and we had paid a princley $6.70 each for our long (75-minute) trip.

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