A private car or taxi is entitled to 10 minutes of "free waiting" on the airport premises, most of which is usually spent queuing up at the entry and climbing up and down and turning left and right to reach the arrival section at the other end of the cavernous parking lot.
A first-time visitor is more than likely to get confused and end up in front of the walkway to the terminal, in which case more minutes would be lost reversing the car and taking the proper exit lane. The exit lane doesn't specify either where the vehicle will reach - the passenger pick-up area or elsewhere - until the person at the wheel has reached the last stretch of the maze.
For the state-run airport, of course, all this means an extra Rs 100 in revenue at the expense of a car owner or driver who would otherwise have completed the pick-up and exit within the free waiting period.
Cars entering the airport have to go through toll booths where attendants give out parking tickets mentioning the time of arrival.
The barricaded lane going directly to the arrival area from there has a sign saying that only VIP cars and pre-paid taxis can use it. Other vehicles, including app cabs like Ola and Uber, need to enter the parking lot to reach the passenger pick-up area in front of the terminal.
By the time a private or hired car picks up a passenger, puts the luggage in the boot and makes a dash for the toll booths, invariably more than 10 minutes have elapsed. Arguments over being made to pay Rs 100 for exceeding the time limit by even a few seconds are common.
On December 7, some toll-booth attendants allegedly assaulted the driver of a commercial vehicle for questioning the practice. The incident triggered an agitation by drivers that stalled airport-bound traffic for more than an hour.
The next morning, Madhuja Bhattacharya of Garia protested at being made to pay Rs 100 after the driver of the car that had come to pick her up lost his way inside the underground parking lot.
"The driver got confused by the signage. There was nobody around to guide him to the correct lane. Then there was a car blocking the way to the exit because the driver got into an argument with the attendant," recounted Madhuja, who was returning from a trip.
When the car finally reached her, a guard told the driver that he couldn't wait there. "He then parked a little ahead and walked back to carry my luggage. It wasn't his fault or mine, but these people forced me to pay Rs 100," she said.
Mumbai businessman Vinod Bhojwani, who was in Calcutta a few days ago, had a similar experience. "My relative had come to pick me up. He said there was a long queue at the entry to the car park. When we reached the toll booth, the attendant said we had to pay the fee because the car was inside for 11 minutes. It's a ridiculous system," he said.
Airline officials and many passengers said the airport authorities should do away with the free parking time rather than follow a practice that leaves scope for confusion and harassment.
"The agency manning the parking lot paid a licence fee to the airport and so has found a way to fleece passengers. They divert cars through the parking lot to levy the parking fee in a backhanded manner," said Captain Sarvesh Gupta, chairman of the Airline Operators' Committee of Calcutta airport.
"Why should people pay for just dropping or picking up passengers when they are not using the parking facility at all?" Gupta demanded. "The idea of allowing 10 minutes for pick-up and drop was to avoid congestion in front of the terminal. But that purpose is lost. It's the duty of the police to ensure there is no car unnecessarily waiting in front of the terminal."
At Mumbai airport, cars going to the arrival zone have to be parked and the fee is Rs 180. Departure-level entry and exit is free. "To avoid congestion at the arrival level, it has been made mandatory for every car coming to pick up passengers to get into the parking lot and pay the fee. At the departure level, there is no fee if a car drops a passenger and leaves," said a spokesperson for Mumbai airport.
A.K. Sharma, the director of Calcutta airport, said cars were being routed through the parking lot for pick-up to avoid congestion. "Commercial vehicles used to wait in the lanes and cause congestion."
The parking fee was raised from Rs 60 for four hours to Rs 100 for two hours from June. The 10-minute waiver was initially not applicable to commercial vehicles. It was extended to all in September.
The Telegraph, Calcutta