In an Idea Exchange programme at The Indian Express, Manoj Gangal, Director, Pune Airport, talks of how the city’s airport at Lohegaon handles three times the traffic it was meant for and why a new civil airport is the only way ahead.
Sunanda Mehta: How restrictive is it for you to work at Pune Airport, as basically it’s a defence airport and you have to share the facilities and time slots with Air Force operations?
Manoj Gangal: We have to co-exist. Initially, the airport was for defence flights and now it’s also being used for civil operations. Today, we have about 62 departures and 62 arrivals and about 100 Air Force flights every day. So you can see that civil flights are more than defence operations now. The requirement of civil flights has gone up over the years. The airport was not built keeping in mind civil operations, hence it doesn’t have the infrastructure to meet the growing need of the city. The airport has the capacity to handle 1.12 million passengers per annum, but today we are handling 3.6 million passengers every year and it’s growing at 10 per cent per year.
Manoj More: There’s talk about shortage of parking bays. Do you think that you need to expand?
Presently, we have eight parking bays out of which only six are available for scheduled operations. Of the other two, one is for non-scheduled operations and another is on standby. Every day, we see over 120 arrival-departures and hence we feel that we need to expand the parking bays. Hence we have asked for two more bays. As the state government has plans to build a new and separate airport for Pune, we feel that till then it will be sufficient if we have two more bays.
Once, civil operations move to the new airport, this will remain a defence airport.
Geeta Nair: What about availability and quality of food served at the airport?
Presently, we have two food outlets. Now, Supra Foods will open two new counters, one serving south Indian food and another serving north Indian food. Apart from this, two other counters will come up in the check-in area which will provide milk products and bakery items. As new outlets are coming, the prices of the food will also come down. Also, we are going to invite only international food chain brands as they have a fixed price for the food items.
Manoj More: Although you have to co-exist with the defence establishment, do you think you are able to provide enough facilities to civil fliers?
We have several state-of-the-art facilities and several new ones are on the anvil. We have retiring rooms, money exchange counters, bank facilities, ambulance and ambulift, child care room, restaurants. Services on which we are presently working are airport hangar for non-scheduled operators, branded food chain, wi-fi for passengers and visitors, airport operations control centre FIDS Digital Display, among other things.
Sunanda Mehta: What about VIP movement at the airport? How frequent is it and does it affect routine operations?
We see quite a lot of VIP movements mostly because there are so many VIPs who stay in the city. On an average day, we have 4-5 VIPs coming in or going out. Chief Minister, Deputy Chief Minister are in town once or twice a week. The most challenging VIP for us to handle, in my experience, have been spiritual leaders as devotees throng the airport. For instance, in the case of Sri Sri Ravishankar and Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin. During Syedna visit in May, over four lakh people were waiting for him outside the airport. Of course, they did not cause any commotion and were very well disciplined.
Sunanda Mehta: What about security arrangements? Especially in light of recent happenings in the city.
We have 323 securitymen. We have six dog squads highly trained in spotting explosives as well as smuggled goods and banned substances.
Nisha Nambiar: Can we hope to see some international flights from the city because there’s demand from the business community regarding more international flights.
Yes, we are working towards that. We are more interested in connecting with the far east. We are looking towards connecting Singapore. Earlier, we had a flight to Bangkok but had to discontinue it due to some political issues. Silk Air has been providing such service from other airports. We are planning to start such a service from Pune, although it will put additional pressure on operations.
Nisha Nambiar: What happened to land acquisition plans for expansion of facilities at Lohegaon Airport?
Earlier, we were trying for land which involved change of ownership. Now, we have decided to take land on ‘right of way’ basis. In a ‘right of way’ basis we use land and after that transfer it to the owner. Now, we are knocking doors from this angle. We need land equivalent to two parking bays.
Anuradha Mascarenhas: In light of Ebola outbreaks and threat of its spread, what protective gear do passengers need to wear or what’s the general precaution that you are taking at the airport?
Firstly, we should not create panic among passengers. These requirements are well looked after by the state government. We have specialised doctors at the airport 24X7. Ambulances are at standby.
(Sanjay Dularey, Airport Manager, who was also present, said: Immigration is monitoring prior movements of every passengers who get down from a flight. The system gives an advance warning which is conveyed to the airline and then thorough checks are carried out on such a traveller who has come from a high risk country.)
Geeta Nair: What about parking outside the airport getting messy. Also approach roads are either clogged or in bad shape.
These are issues we are trying to address. It has to be a joint effort of Air Force, Airports Authority and Pune Municipal Corporation. Because the problem is that the land belongs to some party, it’s in possession of a second party and it’s presently used by a third one. So even if we want to develop it we can’t do that because it’s not owned by us. The road which goes to Symbiosis College is owned by PMC. The road from Weikfield square to the airport is owned by Air Force.
Geeta Nair: According to your estimate, how long will it take for the new airport to be operational once land acquisition is done?
I won’t be able to give a time frame. There are many technical issues involved. It will depend on infrastructural development and design, the contractor, the size and number of terminals, topography of the land.
Manoj More: Have terror alerts increased over the years?
I would say we are more sensitised now. Things around us have changed. I won’t say threats have increased but we are definitely more senstitised now.
When we get a terror alert, security is enhanced. The word ‘enhanced’ means several things. One: profiling goes up. The airline staffers pose more questions to the travellers about travel history. Also there would be more checks of baggage. Even if a thorough check has been done at check-in by security personnel, another manual check will be conducted before boarding. Also, immigration, customs and other agencies carry out checks. But as Pune is hyper-sensitive airport it’s always on high alert.
Atikh Rahshid: What are your focus areas?
How you present things and how you talk with people is really important. I feel only two things can make a major difference. One: keeping washrooms clean. Two: Talking to people in a courteous manner. Today if you come to the airport, you will find security staffers are more courteous and airlines people considerate. Being helpful to senior citizens, expecting mothers and others. We want it to be a very friendly but very firm airport.
For last four-five years growth in passenger number was over 20 per cent. For the last two years it slowed down since closure of Kingfisher Airlines. Kingfisher was the biggest operator with 20 departures per day. They closed down and at one go 20 flights stopped. But even after closure, flight numbers have gone up. When Kingfisher closed down, we had 84 arrival-departures. Now slowly as other airlines have expanded operations, we have over 120 arrival-departures every day. Also every airline wants either early morning or late evening timings. So in one-and-a-half hour in the morning we have about 20 arrival-departures and same again at night.
Geeta Nair: If Navi Mumbai airport comes up, will it affect traffic at Pune Airport? Will two airports in proximity be financially viable?
The government is going in for development of many airports. It’s not about financial viability. The city is increasing, municipal limits have expanded and number of fliers have gone up. Pune as a city should have it’s own airport.
(Transcribed by Atikh Rashid)