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Indian Air Farce

ON the face of it, with 126 airports under its control and as among the few public sector units (PSUs) to register profits, the Airports Aut...


January 16, 2005

ON the face of it, with 126 airports under its control and as among the few public sector units (PSUs) to register profits, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) gives an impression of being in good health. Its unions accuse the government of trying to choke the PSU by privatising Delhi and Mumbai airports, its principal money earners. Two out of 126 should not make that big a difference. But as it turns out, it makes all the difference.

The revenue from these two airports help brush aside some very uneasy facts about this ‘‘strong, healthy, profit-earning PSU’’. Consider this:

40 of the 126 airports under the AAI are actually non-operational. And just about 10-odd airports of the remaining 86 operational ones account for AAI’s profits, Delhi and Mumbai being the main contributors.

There are over 25 airports that are under the AAI, but where no manpower is stationed because no flights operate to these places.

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There are nearly a dozen airports where manpower is stationed, investments are made and maintenance costs incurred. But barring the odd chartered or VIP aircraft, no regular airline mounts services to these places.

IT is the third category of airports towards which much of the AAI’s money goes — for returns that are negligible. These places have become vacation spots for employees posted there. Hardly a visitor or aircraft arrives in any given year. There is zero activity, barring the odd flying club in some places or a politician making his way during elections.

Indeed, this situation has been untouched by a decade and more of reform, of liberalisation, of change in economic thinking.

A tourism expert’s assessment two years ago pointed out that India had 126 airports and 329 airstrips. In contrast, China, geographically much larger, had only 76 airports, but managed them optimally for tourism and travel to boom.

Go back to 1996-97 and the numbers are still as stark. That year, India’s top five airports handled 73.5 per cent of the traffic. The next 115 or so handled 26.5 per cent.

The figures have not changed materially. To call these unused airports and airfields a colossal waste of resources would be an understatement. They constitute the unrecorded scandal of the Civil Aviation Ministry.

BUT before getting further into details, it is important to take note of what the Ministry and the AAI are doing. Besides the ongoing process of restructuring Delhi and Mumbai airports, the Civil Aviation Ministry has prompted AAI to undertake the modernisation of 23 non-metro airports.

The purpose is to generate more non-aeronautical revenue by utilising airport land and assets to build shopping arcades, malls and restaurants and so on to boost income.

The move may be positive in the strict sense of revenue. But it may not do for the kind of qualitative change that is needed. The malaise runs deeper.

The second part of the Naresh Chandra Committee’s report on a roadmap for the civil aviation sector — submitted in late 2004 — states, ‘‘The AAI is now able to boast of vast reserves of funds only because it has failed to reinvest the revenue for expansion and modernisation, even as it kept raising airport charges exorbitantly at regular intervals. The absence of even one international airport with parallel runways is a sad comment on the monolithic management of airports.’’

The committee, of course, suggests a complete restructuring of the AAI. And in fact, the government has already initiated the process of corporatising the management of international airports in Delhi and Mumbai.

But the real challenge is from smaller airports. Here AAI spends far more on both upkeep and personnel despite the fact that no regular traffic is headed to some of these places.

Several options are being worked upon, including a suggestion to bunch together a couple of such airports and get private players to run them. But for the moment, even officials agree on the quiet that, somewhere along the line, these airports simply dropped off the country’s aviation map.

The revenue from these airports is abysmal while the AAI continues to incur huge expenses. Take, for instance, Dehradun’s Jolly Grant airport, where Air Deccan finally launched services in December 2004. That’s a beginning but only a small one.

The AAI has been spending Rs. 2.45 crore a year for the upkeep of Jolly Grant and for stationing staff there. In 2002-03, the latest year for which audited records are available, the revenue from this airport was a mere Rs 8.72 lakh.

Similarly, the annual expenditure incurred for a small airport like Behala, near Kolkata, is Rs 17.29 lakh. This may not seem much but stands out when seen against the meagre Rs 5,000 that comes back annually in revenue.

‘‘All this is plain bad economics,’’ says an official, adding the AAI has turned into a huge ‘‘monolith’’ that just cannot pay attention to development of smaller airports any longer.

Savour some other examples:

Kangra (Himachal Pradesh): The annual expenditure here is Rs. 2.16 crore and earnings a mere Rs 37.4 lakh. There have been plans in the past to connect this airport with smaller aircraft. But attention has now been diverted to Bhuntar airfield, where former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had personally desired a more modern facility.
Kota (Rajasthan): This is an industrial city with all the potential for a successful airport. But the buzz is that Indian Railways got the better of any airline drawing up plans to fly here. No airline has seriously considered coming here after Vayudoot’s aborted flight long years ago. The AAI today spends Rs 63 lakh on maintenance but earns just over Rs 6 lakh per year.
Ludhiana (Punjab): Indications are that even Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has given up hope on this airport, and is now trying to push for a Bangalore-style greenfield airport near Jalandhar. In a pitiable state, the AAI is still maintaining the Ludhiana facility in the hope that it could become an alternative to Amritsar airport someday. At present, Rs 73 lakh is spent on its upkeep annually. Returns are a little over Rs 3 lakh.
Kandla & Keshod (Gujarat): The state government has been trying to run chartered services to these two airports. No scheduled operator has shown interest, but charters apparently do show up. None of this reflects in the finances though. Cumulative revenue from the two airports is slightly above Rs 2 lakh and, put together, the AAI’s annual expenditure is a happy Rs 1.1 crore.
Kanpur (Uttar Pradesh): The state’s aviation network seems to begin and end with Lucknow, despite some of the better airfields in places like Kanpur. Now Air Sahara, an airline identified with Uttar Pradesh — it has even begun flights to Allahabad and Gorakhpur — and which used Lucknow as its base when it started operations, too has moved on to Hyderabad. The future is bleak, say analysts, for Uttar Pradesh’s once booming industrial cities. Still, Rs 1.27 crore is spent each year on Kanpur airport. Returns are a mere Rs 2.33 lakh.
Pantnagar (Uttaranchal): After Dehradun, the Uttaranchal government is keen on pushing for the development of this airport. But as of now, it is one big vacation for employees posted here. Expenditure incurred is over Rs 77 lakh a year; earnings barely cross Rs 5 lakh.

INDIA’s rich but underused network of airports and airstrips is a legacy of its complex past. Some of these airports are leftovers from World War II, built by the Allies as part of the battle against Japan. Some were inherited from princely states, where the local ruler may have indulged himself by building his own little airport.

Astutely tapped, this matrix could have made air travel an everyday affair for middle class India. Instead, these airports were simply killed off by a mindset that saw a plane ticket as a rich man’s luxury.

NOW these airports await their second chance. Part two of the Naresh Chandra Committee report calls for making management of airports a more decentralised affair. Local initiatives need to be promoted so that ‘‘the population there believes it has a stake in the airport’s development’’, says a civil aviation analyst.

With airline fares dropping considerably over the past two years, the idea is to get low-budget airlines to target such locations. ‘‘But when you have a body like the AAI that is happy with the revenue it gets from its few airports, there is a certain resistance to change. It is for this purpose that a restructuring is very important,’’ says a senior official.

So when does it begin?

Quiet corner of a forgotten airfield

The Sunday Express went visiting desolate, deserted airports. And even met one that may just have begun a turnaround.

Kandla crunch
IT may be marketed as a Mumbai in the making, but Kandla — India’s first major port post-1947 and first free trade zone — does not have an air link to the rest of the country. This despite a functional civil aerodrome and good air traffic potential, both passenger and cargo.

The aerodrome was built in the late 1950s. Passenger service, offered by Indian Airlines’ Avros and then by Vayudoot, started in 1960. Subsequently, Gujarat Airways and Jet Airways began flights to Mumbai. It all died in 1999.

‘‘We have a 20-member staff at the airport and can attend to any small aircraft,’’ says aerodrome officer G.B. Gyanchandani, ‘‘but are not operational for any commercial flights. Air service operators have stopped their service and we now handle only VIP aircraft, when they come.’’

PRIVATE airlines say they don’t find using small aircraft profitable. ‘‘Private airlines now operate big aircraft like Boeings, which cannot come to our airport as the runway is inadequate,’’ an official in Kandla says.

  Kandla sleeps while Bhuj sees flights. But of Bhuj’s passengers are from Kandla

Is there money to upgrade facilities? Yes, but there’s no intent. ‘‘The government and the AAI don’t appear to be enthusiastic to re-start Kandla airport, as Bhuj, 60 km away, now has a new airport,’’ the official adds.

A Kandla Port Trust trustee insists the city ‘‘being the commercial capital of Kutch’’ has a strong case: ‘‘Sixty per cent of the passengers on the Bhuj-Mumbai flight are from Kandla-Gandhidham area.’’

Keshod kaput
WHAT was intended as a full-fledged airport has been reduced to a landing strip for VIPs. Located some three kilometres from Keshod town, this airport was built by Mahabatkhanji, the then ruler of Junagadh, for private use. In the late 1980s, it was upgraded for commercial use.

Today, it’s an airport that has everything, equipment to staff, but no regular flights. The last scheduled flight was a Jet Airways one to Mumbai in July 2000.

On any given day, staff members can be seen twiddling their thumbs, literally. Technical staff don’t bother coming to work. If they’re needed, they’re given a call. As an AAI official explains, ‘‘A total of 10 staff members, including the air traffic officer, are at the airport. Technical persons are called as and when required … The airport is now used only for flights of VIPs on their way to Somnath.’’

Kota cop-out
PHOTOGRAPHS pinned on a notice board in the aerodrome officer’s office, including one of Jawaharlal Nehru and some of ribbon-cutting ceremonies, are the only reminders of Kota airport’s ‘‘popular bygone era’’.

The locked gates, idle staff, boys playing cricket near the runway and buffaloes grazing under the warm winter sun are constant reminders of how ‘‘unpopular’’ the airport has become since the last regular Delhi-Jaipur-Kota flight landed here in 1995.

The sprawling airport, spread over 152 hectares, was taken over by the Civil Aviation Ministry from Kota’s former royal family in 1951. Indian Airlines landed its Dakotas here, followed by Jagson Airlines and Vayudoot. But as Kota became a major railway junction and a number of industries shut shop, air traffic dwindled.

The flights stopped and the encroachments began. Today, six hectares of prime land owned by the AAI has been taken over by slums. Half a dozen legal cases are being fought, while a 10-year-old proposal to expand the airport gathers dust.

‘‘BASICALLY the city has surrounded the airport and no one so much as bothers to take an NOC (no-objection certificate) from us before constructing buildings in a 20 km radius from the airport,’’ says a disheartened official.

‘‘This airport is not safe. A pilot still lands here using the visual flight route. He has to be careful and keep an eye out for all these illegal constructions.’’

For the 10 people who walk into this desolate office every morning, there is nothing to do. Many spend their day looking out of the window, at NCC cadets and their gliders. Even the Rajputana Aviation Academy has stopped flying here and moved on.

Bored stiff, the employees look forward to visitors. Some talk about the Rajasthan assembly election in December 2003. ‘‘So many politicians used our airstrip then,’’ says Chita Lal, one of the oldest employees at Kota aerodrome, ‘‘there was a lot of activity, just like there used to be …’’

  Air Deccan took off from Kanpur on Dec 24, 2004.

Kanpur crusher
IT may still be regarded as one of India’s premier industrial towns, but Kanpur’s civil airport tells a different story. Its dilapidated set-up requires Rs 10 lakh per month for upkeep but earns less than Rs 20,000.

Training for aspiring commercial and private pilots is all that justifies its existence.

The airport was set up in 1939, during World War II. In the 66 years that have passed, its runway has never been recarpeted. ‘‘It (runway) has been maintained only through patchwork from time to time,’’ confirms airport director V.K. Shukla.

He also explains why the airport has no future. Initially, 15-seater Dakotas used to use this aerodrome. At 3,500 feet, the runway was long enough for them. It has now shrunk to 2,500 feet due to encroachments.

IN the mid-1990s, Archana Airlines and Jagson Airlines began flights, but they withdrew services when the increasing weight of the aircraft became a worry. ‘‘The problem is that the runway is too short to take the load of the latest aircraft, weighing more than 5,000 kg,’’ says Shukla, ‘‘and there is no way this length can be extended.’’

Why? Because on one side of the runway are high tension wires of the Indian Railways. On the other side, is the Indian Air Force station.

  Kota airport is spread over . But are now slum land

The Kanpur civil aerodrome is the only location in Uttar Pradesh that provides pilot training facilities. Still, it earns about Rs 10,000 a month from the two training agencies that use it.

‘‘But our monthly electricity bill alone reaches Rs 20,000,’’ complains Shukla, ‘‘and the phone bill is never less than Rs 10,000. Besides, every year we pay over Rs 10 lakh for cleaning the runway of grass.’’

Dehradun, doom and dream
SURROUNDED by mountains, Jolly Grant airport, 20 kilometres from Dehradun, is about the most picturesque place in the Doon valley. Till December 2004, it was also a quiet sort of location, until Air Deccan began flights to Delhi and gave Dehradun residents their first taste of air travel in a long time.

It was a pity, really. The airport had all the modern equipment and air traffic controllers but, till Air Deccan came along, no regular flights.

The airport is usually used by chartered flights, private air ambulances or VIPs visiting Dehradun, Haridwar or Rishikesh. Built in 1982, its airstrip of 3,700 feet is too small for big aircraft; and small aircraft, the travel industry says, are not viable. Air Deccan has now tried to square the circle.

  Built in Kanpur airport’s runway hasn’t been recarpeted in

VAYUDOOT operated a Dehradun-Delhi-Lucknow flight from 1982 to 1995. Later private airlines like KVC, Archana and Jagson tried to fill the breach but soon gave up.

Now, as the capital of Uttaranchal, a state so focused on tourism, Dehradun feels the need for a full-fledged airport. An ambitious expansion plan has been drawn up. ‘‘We have started the process to resettle the Tehri Dam oustees, initially settled in the vicinity of the airport, to Rishikesh,’’ says Manisha Pawar, district magistrate, Dehradun.

The Dehradun-Rishikesh highway, running parallel to the runway, is another hazard. It confuses pilots trying to land. Now the highway is being diverted.

‘‘The airport has great potential if bigger aircraft can land here,’’ Vijay Sethi, the first station in-charge of Vayudoot. Sethi now runs his own travel agency in Dehradun. He knows what a modern airport can do for business. He’s waiting.

Across India, so are some 100 towns.

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