Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bengaluru: Tale of 2 airports

Bengaluru: Tale of 2 airports
Vicky Nanjappa in Bengaluru
February 27, 2008
Is the new Bengaluru International Airport (see images) jinxed? This was a question asked by several people looking at the number of hurdles it faced till the completion of the project.

First, the Tatas walked out of the project, and then there were problems regarding the acquisition of land and finally a stinker from the Union government, which said it was unhappy with the design.

But the implementers of the project managed to overcome all these hurdles. A week ago, Albert Brunner, chief executive of the Bangalore International Airport Ltd was all smiles when he announced that the first flight would take off on March 29.

Bengaluru had finally got a full-fledged international airport and no longer did it have to rely on a make shift arrangement it had all these years.

But the ride is not as easy as it seems.

Several people in the city have now moved the court seeking a direction to, both, the Karnataka and the Union governments to keep the HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) airport open at least for domestic operations. The Karnataka high court has now directed the BIAL (Bengaluru International Airport Ltd), the Union and the Karnataka governments to file a reply on the petition.

The new airport is spacious, can accommodate more flights, has state-of-the-art facilities, but people are worried about the distance of the airport from the city. Picture this -- travel for nearly three hours to the new airport, which has a two hour check-in for domestic flights for a flight to Hyderabad or Chennai to cover that distance in just around 45 minutes! Sounds strange, but this is true.

The travel time to reach the new airport has irked people as it seems like a never ending journey. Before the High Court it was contended that passengers will face lot of problems to reach the new airport. Taking a cab to the new airport would cost at least Rs 1,000. While domestic passengers have to pay a user development fee of Rs 675, international passengers have to pay Rs 955. However, this fee has been slashed by 50 per cent only till May 2008.

It is being contended that since Mumbai and Delhi airports do not impose such a fee and why should Bengaluru be any different?

Talking about distance, the persons who will be hit the most will be those from the IT sector. People who have to reach the airport from the Electronic City or International Technology Park where most of the major IT firms are located will have to travel at least 43 kilometres to reach the airport. The traffic snarls will make the journey worse for IT professionals.

The closure of the old airport is bad news for the HAL also. It is estimated that HAL airport will lose revenues to the tune of about Rs 150-170 crore (Rs 1.5-1.7 billion) every month. Given a choice HAL would have no problem in keeping the old airport open at least for domestic flights. As a backup, there are various plans in case the HAL airport is shut down. There are plans of setting up a shopping complex, a helicopter charter service or an aviation academy.

The closing down the HAL airport would result in more losses. It was only recently that the HAL airport was remodeled by spending crores of rupees to handle international flights.

However, there are a host of benefits at the new airport. Once within the airport one would not have to worry about traffic jams, which are a part of the HAL airport. There would be more flights, more space in the airport and facilities for passengers.

Once the trumpet flyover connecting the new airport and the metro rail link comes up then the traffic woes and the issues regarding the travel time will be sorted out instantly. But these projects may take at least a while to come up.

While several people from the city feel that the old airport should be retained for domestic operations the BIAL feels otherwise. Albert Brunner says that there is no question of keeping both the airports open. He says that operating two airports simultaneously would be disastrous.

To operate two airports on a long term basis is a bad idea and would also be disastrous for the airline operators, passengers and for the overall business. Cities which have dual airports like Hong Kong and Munich have turned out to be a disaster as the airports have never grown.

The London airport sees passenger volumes of 140 million, while New York has 150 million air passengers per year, Bangalore has just 10 million. "Here is a unique opportunity for Bangalore airport to be a major hub in south India by having one big and strong airport," Brunner says.

Regarding the petition before the high court, Brunner says that they will be filing a reply shortly. For now, it is an interesting battle between two airports in the same city.


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