Monday, May 19, 2008

The man who pioneered the step forward

The man who pioneered the step forward
S R Valluri

Improving the air travel facilities in Bangalore was a long-felt need. Once, in the late '80s, Dr R Narasimha, my successor as the Director of NAL, and I were returning from Thiruvananthapuram after attending a meeting in ISRO. We noted how crowded the airport was and how badly it was designed. We noted that more often than not, Indian airports were obsolete even before they were opened for operations.
There was no forward planning in anticipation of future requirements. I proposed to Narasimha that we should do something about it, and that I would be glad if NAL were to formally obtain the approval of the Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation to study the issue, and that I would be glad to take on the responsibility of studying the problem.
The then Secretary, Mr Ganesan, readily agreed. As a prelude, I studied the plans of several international airports all over the world. I also studied the air traffic growth pattern over the years in Bangalore and the potential increase in the national and international traffic in the years to come. It appeared to me that the design of the airport should be based upon a modular concept, with more arrival and departure gates with aerobridges being built to respond to increase in traffic as time goes on.
I also felt that to reduce the traffic congestion near the airport, it should be channelled near the airport itself to different parts of the city, while providing adequate parking facilities. I used HAL airport in Bangalore as an example to sketch a modularly designed terminal. As soon as the feasibility report was submitted, I got a telephone call from the then chairman of HAL, saying that they would not like civil operations to continue forever from their airport. I told him that ours was only a feasibility study about how to build terminals with potential scope for expansion. We submitted the study to the Karnataka government also. Concurrently, Mr Ramanathan, earlier Chairman of the International Airport Authority, also put up a proposal to the Karnataka government. Following these developments, the Ministry of Civil Aviation constituted a committee under his chairmanship with wide representation from the interested parties. The Chairman of HAL retired and another one took over. The new chairman took the view that civil operations need not be shifted. At that time, HAL was apparently earning about Rs 15 crores (Rs150 million) per year as landing fees, certainly not a small sum. But it was too late. The decision to shift the operations had been made. The Karnataka government offered land about 75 km from the city centre. I could not visit the place. The other committee members approved it. Clearly, they did not do their homework or appreciate the problems air travellers would face if the airport were to be located so far away. The time for travel from city center to airport for travel to nearby cities like Chennai, would double; clearly not an acceptable solution.
Mr Ramanathan then left for the US on a vacation and asked me to take over the responsibility of conducting the
meetings in the interim. I met the then Chief Secretary of the Government of Karnataka and asked him whether the government would be willing to give alternative land and compensation, if the Air Force would be willing to give the Yelahanka Training Command Air Force Base to be developed as the international airport. He said that if the Air Force would agree, he would arrange for them to get as much land as they wanted, anywhere in Karnataka, and full compensation for the facilities they would be leaving behind. Rough estimates indicated that the government would have to pay about Rs 500 crores (Rs 5 billion) as compensation to the Air Force. It was clear to me that sooner or later, the Air Force would have to shift the operations of the Training Command from Yelahanka, as Bangalore by then had already started expanding rapidly in that direction. With the assurance from the Chief Secretary, I called for a meeting of the committee in Delhi to examine this alternative. The approval was unanimous, with the Air Force representatives stating that while they agreed in principle, they had no authority to speak on behalf of the Air Force. The Air Force said, "We always take and never give". So ended the efforts to develop Yelahanka Training Command AFB as an international airport. I then once again approached the Chief Secretary and briefed him about the development and sought an alternative location closer to the city, as the one offered was too far. Land near Devanahalli was offered as an alternate site. It is about 35 km from the city centre.
By that time, Mr Ramanathan returned, and we all went to see the place and concluded it would be a good alternative. Proximity to Yelahanka and the HAL airport would pose some air traffic control problems, but the committee felt that a common air traffic control for the three airports should be able to handle the problems. It was also recognized that a new satellite city of about 100,000 people would come up for setting up high-technology industry near the airport. It was also proposed that a six-lane highway as well as a train shuttle should be built to connect the airport with a city checkin terminal where passengers could check in and obtain their boarding passes. All these recommendations were apparently accepted. While approving the airport, the government proposed that it should be self-supporting. In a sense, this was a tall order. The airport was expected to cost about Rs 1,250 crores (Rs 12.5 billion) and that has been currently updated to Rs 1,900 crores (Rs 19 billion). Estimates indicate that to make the airport self-supporting, there would have to be about 1000 landings a day, based upon the current landing charges. Currently there are about 150. It is inevitable that to cover the cost of operations and running the airport, the operators will have to charge about Rs 500 per passenger, if the terminal operations are not subsidized. It remains to be seen what the airport operators will do. Incidentally, it was also found that the HAL airport would be able to handle the traffic for the next 25 years or so. But it became a matter of prestige to have a separate international airport, and the politicians had their way.
(This is an extract from the book
Events in Life published in 2006)


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