Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bumpy landing for Bangalore's airport dream

Bumpy landing for Bangalore's airport dream

Leave three hours to get there…
By Saritha Rai

Published: 30 July 2008 11:28 BST

There were high hopes for Bangalore's multimillion dollar air hub, which opened in May. But locating it in a near wilderness without a decent road was not a great start, says Saritha Rai.

Raghu Shenoy, chief executive of a small Bangalore IT services firm, thinks nothing of jumping on a plane to see a client. If a customer wants a face-to-face meeting, Shenoy will be in Europe in less than 24 hours.

But he quails at the prospect of using Bangalore's new international airport. Even the businesses that lobbied for its creation are hardly breaking out the champagne.

For a start, despite a decade of planning, no one appears to have thought about how to reach the glass-and-steel structure. The $620m airport opened at the end of May, apparently in the middle of nowhere and without a new road link.

Shenoy's company has its headquarters in the gigantic Electronics City, a pristine suburban technology park, where neighbours include India's leading outsourcing companies such as Infosys Technologies and Wipro.

From Electronics City, the 65km trip to the airport can take three hours, outstripping the charge on most laptop batteries.

While top executives can use the expensive helicopter ferry service launching soon, others are obliged to factor in a five-hour lead time before boarding even 30- to 50-minute short-haul flights to neighbouring tech cities such as Chennai and Hyderabad.

Shenoy gets all the way to London from Bangalore in about twice the time his colleagues take to travel to the airport to catch a domestic flight.

The new airport was first conceived 17 years ago, when Bangalore was not even a blip on the globalisation map. In the past decade, as the government dithered monumentally, the city has turned into a verb - being "Bangalored" means your job is being offshored - and air traffic to and from the city had grown some 300 per cent, far above initial projections.

Dozens of multinationals such as Google, HSBC, IBM, Microsoft and Tesco have large operations in the city.

This year, some 11 million passengers will fly in and out of the airport and the technology outsourcing industry will account for a chunk of that.

Yet if air traffic growth has been fuelled by the business traveller, why is the new airport located in near wilderness, far from these businesses?

But then nothing has come easily for the technology industry in Bangalore. For want of a public transport system in the city, companies such as Wipro and Infosys run a fleet of hundreds of private buses to ferry employees to the workplace and back.

Faced with Bangalore's notorious power shutdowns, many run their own power-generating plants.

When hotel rooms in the city got scarce and exorbitant, some IT companies set up hotels on campus for their visitors. To spare thousands of their employees from getting stuck in the never-ending traffic jams that choke the arterial road taking them to Electronics City, companies are chipping in to fund the government's project to build an elevated expressway.

And yet, for businesses that pushed for the new airport, the frustrations are endless. For the best part of the ride to the airport, commuters have to jostle with fume-spewing three-wheelers, bikes, buses, cyclists and, as in most Indian cities, the odd stray animal.

Once out of the city and on to the speedier highway, drivers have to watch for pedestrians - workers from factories, inhabitants of the villages dotting the fringes of the expressway - darting across the high-speed stretch.

Traffic police work the route, not directing traffic but stopping pedestrians from hurtling into the path of vehicles speeding towards the airport.

The airport's swanky façade is attracting oglers from nearby villages, all trying to peer through the glass. Inside, commuters are less impressed.

When Shenoy arrived at the airport last month to board a night flight to London, he found the business class lounge overflowing even at midnight. Passengers have plenty of complaints: the aerobridges don't work, the wi-fi goes on and off, and the lavatories smell.

Certainly, the new facility is an improvement on the embarrassment that was Bangalore's old airport. In the words of a frequent traveller, it resembled a Greyhound bus station in a US town rather than an airport.

The airport was so cramped that the wait to clear immigration and customs and to retrieve baggage was interminable. Travellers eventually found their way out, only to be hounded by private taxi operators who fell on them like a pack of wolves.

The new airport with its 53 check-in counters and 2,500-vehicle car park is an improvement. But commuting three hours for a 40-minute flight is no one's idea of good connectivity. Harried techies are clamouring for the old airport to be reopened at least for domestic flights.

Bangalore's airport was conceived so it could give this otherwise gung-ho tech city an infrastructure edge and signal a change in its dodgy traffic and transport systems.

Now, the local talk is that it's only a matter of time before even obscure Chinese cities, wannabe Bangalores, plan and pull off better airports.


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