While hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on issues being faced by the Chandigarh International Airport, the Punjab and Haryana High Court on Wednesday minced no words as it said that calling it an international airport does not make it one and told the Union government it was “doing nothing great” when it said that the airport is now available for 24×7 operations, considering such a facility is now available even at small airports across India.
Bringing matters back to square one, the Air Force informed the court that certain structures like underground ATC, radar antenna and the old terminal building come in the way of the CAT IIIB installation but cannot be relocated, as per Airport Authority of India experts in procedural design and operations, due to operational and security requirement of the military airport.
The reply filed states that the upgradation of the CAT IIIB can be done “in a phased manner if considered necessary and feasible” and further deliberations would be required. The CAT IIIB facility allows an airport to remain operational even at a minimum of 50 mts visibility and is considered feasible for international flights. Last year, the court had been told that only a final decision is awaited now.
Senior Advocate Puneet Bali, representing the petitioner Mohali Industries Association, argued that someone needs to be prosecuted for the latest turnabout, adding there are five court orders where a stand was taken for the CAT IIIB but now a decision has been taken to shelve it. Senior advocate M L Sarin also expressed surprise at the latest decision and said this has come after over Rs 1000 crore had been spent on the airport.
Countering the arguments, Assistant Solicitor General of India Chetan Mittal submitted that the restrains are there because of the military airbase but CAT I approach lights would be installed at the earliest on the other end of the runway (11) by the AAI, which will allow operations at a minimum of 550 mts and mitigate any possibility of diversion or cancellation of flights to and from Chandigarh.
However, the division bench questioned the stand and observed that a decision should have been taken at the initial stage to build the civil airport at a different site. While agreeing that there will be security issues, the court observed that if both establishments — defence airbase and civil airport — cannot co-exist, it should not have been done in the first place and land should have been found somewhere else around Chandigarh. It also questioned the claim that no flights were cancelled due to visibility problems in winter.
Stating that the Chief Justice of India’s flight from Delhi earlier this month could not land on time due to low visibility, the division bench observed, “To say that you have developed such facilities that there is no delay…is an incorrect statement.” Mittal, however, said he was speaking regarding cancellations and diversions alone. Bali argued that delay is also a major factor. Mittal responded that a pilot’s capability to operate and land a flight in low visibility is also a factor which can delay landing.
Asking the Centre whether it was ready to provide facilities for international flights and by when, the court also asked whether the airport was capable of catering to flights in case of zero visibility. Mittal responded that even CAT IIIB facility can allow operations till minimum of 50 mts visibility. Sarin submitted that international flights have refused to operate from here only due to lack of the CAT IIIB facility.
Bali also submitted before the court that a statement was made last year that ILS CAT-II has been made operational, adding that they have not even made the CAT II ILS operational. The reply filed by the Air Force reveals that a way out to install the 24 Element Antennas Array System (EASS) on the localiser for the purpose is being worked out. CAT II ILS has been installed on runway 29 (one end of the existing runway at the airport) to keep it running at even at 350 mts visibility .
During the hearing, a heated argument also ensued between Bali and Mittal, who submitted that officers have been working hard for the airport and adverse statements should not be made before court. However, Bali rebutted it saying that commitments are made before the court, only to be changed later. “The misfortune is that affidavit after affidavit is filed but nothing happens and then there is a bogey of two things — defence and ‘don’t break our hearts because we are doing our best’. We are doing our best too by paying the taxes. We cannot fly out from here,” submitted Bali. Mittal responded that everything cannot be blamed on the airport when the industry itself is down and there are other circumstances to blame as well.
The court said it was neither being told whether CAT IIIB is possible nor before which date it will made available. Asking whether the airport is ever going to have such a facility, the court observed that the Centre should recover money from the experts who had earlier said it was possible and told it to invest crores on the airport. “You have spent so much money. You should have said so that it was not feasible,” observed the bench.
Directing the Centre to make a clear statement regarding the CAT IIIB facility as to whether it will be possible to install it and by when it will be installed, the court Wednesday said it will hear only from amicus M L Sarin on the next date of hearing and asked him to prepare a consolidated report about the issues pending in the matter.
In its reply, the Air Force Wednesday also said that the director general (defence estates) has been directed to finalise the recommendations regarding the Southern Taxi Track and asked to send the same to the Ministry of Defence, which would clear it on a fast track basis. In the meantime, the CEO of Chandigarh Airport has been asked to start the mobilisation phase and construction on their part of the land. Regarding runway 11, the Air Force has said that phased upgradation would be planned to CAT II for runway 11 and subsequently to CAT III.
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