Moving to close commercial operations at Patna airport, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) plans to swap a customs airport in Gaya with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to develop an international airport at the IAF airbase in Bihta, 33 km away from the Bihar capital.
The proposal was discussed between Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju and Minister for Defence Manohar Parrikar at a meeting in the first week of July.
It is learnt that Parrikar was receptive to the proposal and assured Raju that he would look into the matter. If approved, defence operations will shift from Bihta to the existing Airports Authority of India (AAI) facility in Gaya.
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The move is being considered ahead of an International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) audit in November this year. During its previous visit, the United Nations body had flagged concerns about continuing passenger operations out of the Loknayak Jaya Prakash airport at Patna, which is not licensed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
On July 17, 2000, an Alliance Air flight crashed while landing at Patna airport, killing 55 of the 58 people on board and five on the ground.
A senior official in MoCA said: “The airport at Patna does not have the required safety strip of 150 metres along the runway. All airlines have to fly with load penalty and keep 20-30 seats empty on board each flight. Given the operational constraints, the ministry is keen that civilian operations shift to the airbase in Bihta.”
The MoD is learnt to be open to the proposal. “They have asked that the customs airport in Gaya be handed to the IAF in lieu of Bihta,” the official said.
The airbase at Bihta is spread over 900 acres and is similar in Ministry plans to shut Patna airport, move to IAF base
size to the airport in Gaya (975 acres).
A year ago, the MoCA had asked the Bihar government to take urgent measures to address air safety concerns at Patna airport. While carrying out its safety audit, the DGCA found deficiencies in a number of areas at the airport.
These included lack of requisite area on either side of the runway, mandated by the DGCA to ensure flight safety.
The MoCA also wrote to the state government after an ICAO team visited the airport and expressed concern that it was in operation though it did not have a licence from the DGCA. An airport is allowed to function only after it gets a licence. The licensing process requires DGCA to evaluate existing facilities, equipment and issues relating to air safety at an airport before assessing the application.
Not much has been done since to ease operational constraints at Patna. In November, the ICAO will be auditing the country’s safety oversight mechanism for the third time after 2006 and 2012. The ICAO audit will be based on parameters such as aerodrome operations, air traffic control, airports and air navigation.