All’s not well, traffic nosedives at city airport

Only 27 flights take off to 13 destinations | Passenger traffic dips to 20.97 lakh in 2018 from nearly 21.37 lakh in 2017

Kaveesha Kohli
Tribune News Service
Chandigarh, May 21

The Chandigarh international airport has the capacity to serve 50 million people and it has a catchment area that can serve seven states, says a pitch that the airport made to airlines in a bid to convince them to fly from the city.

The number of flights at the airport has dipped. At present, only 27 flights take off to 13 destinations from the airport. Two of these go to Sharjah and Dubai.

In 2017, there were about 36 flights from the airport. The passenger traffic dipped to 20.97 lakh in 2018 from nearly 21.37 lakh in 2017.

In April alone, the grounding of Jet Airways had led to the cancellation of six flights that the airlines operated to and from the city. Also, three IndiGo flights, which were set to start from Chandigarh to Bangalore, Hyderabad and Chennai beginning April 30, have not been launched.

“We were ready to launch 50 new domestic flights from the airport. However, the grounding of Jet Airways freed up slots across the country. Why would airlines fly from here if more profitable routes are available? This is why IndiGo has withdrawn too,” said a senior airport official.

Grounding of Jet Airways latest setback

However, the grounding of Jet Airways is only the latest setback. Over the years, the Chandigarh airport has met with several challenges, including a now long-drawn court battle, which included allegations of “vested interests” of individuals in Delhi and delayed responses and policy U-turns from the Ministry of Defence and Civil Aviation.

The new terminal at the airport was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 and has been developed by Punjab, Haryana and the Airports Authority of India (AAI) using a joint venture — Chandigarh International Airport Ltd (CHIAL). About Rs 1,400 crore were spent on its development.

Soon after its launch, a PIL was filed by the Mohali Industries Association asking why the ‘international’ airport did not have any international flights. Three years later, thanks to the intervention of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, the airport is functional 24X7 and its runway is being extended to accommodate international flights. In the coming months, the runway is also set to have a CAT-3 ILS system, which aids aircraft in landing even during poor visibility and fog.

International flights, however, still seem to be a distant reality for the airport. Furthermore, even though the airport is equipped to run 24X7, the last flight here leaves at 7:45 pm.

Has it truly become ‘international’?

“The High Court has been monitoring the upgrade of the Chandigarh International Airport and though another Rs 500 crore has been spent in making it fit for flights 24X7, we have merely two international flights from Chandigarh,” said ML Sarin, senior advocate and amicus curiae in the case.

“The Central and state governments need to take proactive steps, only then the addition of the word international to the airport’s name will be justified,” said Sarin.

The airport official, however, maintained that attracting airlines was not the job of the airport, which could only provide them with the requisite infrastructure.

He said, “The Chandigarh airport has a lot of potential. It can serve the NRI belt of Punjab — the Doaba region, Jalandhar and Ludhiana, if we are able to connect to the US, Canada, the UK, Europe.”

For international flights, the imminent issue at the time of the airport’s launch was the length of the runway, which could not accommodate wide-bodied aircraft often used in international flights.

“It was found by this court that on the one hand, the world-class international airport had been raised to cater to the requirements of the entire region; however, no planning was done for the futuristic growth insofar as the runway for the flights operations were concerned,” the high court had noted.

The high court had also come down heavily on the AAI and the airport authorities after they initially responded to the issue in the court by saying that “since the plane of the French President had landed at the airport, therefore it could not be said that the Chandigarh International Airport was not ready to take off the international flights”.

Another major issue is that for international flights, a bilateral agreement needs to be signed between countries. This is the responsibility of the Civil Aviation Ministry.

“There are several requirements that have to fulfilled. Airlines conduct techno-economic feasibility studies then timings and slots have to be worked out. Another important aspect is bilateral agreement. The whole process can take up to two years,” said the airport official.

According to the affidavits submitted by the Civil Aviation Ministry in court, the government’s policies discourage foreign carriers on non-metro airports and want to emphasise on generating “hub and spoke” models for domestic carriers, instead of directly linking non-metro cities to foreign destinations.

“It is mentioned that as far as possible the government as a policy is not granting any non-metro airport as a new point of call to any foreign carrier. The aim of this policy is to provide support to the Indian carriers and need support to stabilise their operational and financial performance,” mentions a government affidavit submitted in court.

Another affidavit notes that “granting of interior points in the country is to be discouraged in order to facilitate hub and spoke model of air transport with the support of domestic carriers.”

In a hub-and-spoke, airline operators make metro airports such as Delhi their hubs. The airlines then develop regional routes, say from Chandigarh to Delhi, so that they bring more traffic to their hubs.

‘Vested interests’ and policy U-turns

On several occasions, the court and several lawyers levelled allegations that there were vested interests at play that were preventing the airport from being developed.

An issue of major contention has been the construction of the parallel taxi track (PTT) or an alternative runway at the Aairport. In 2015, a letter was written by then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to the Punjab CM stating the importance of a second runway for both civil and military operations. According to the letter, the AAI would be asked to “share” the cost of the new runway.

The Defence Ministry, however, later withdrew from the plan despite an initial “in-principle approval”, citing the land acquisition cost as the main issue.

Responding to the events, the court had noted, “It would be necessary to recount the entire facts and circumstances as to how the matter regarding the PTT/alternative runway at the airport had been considered and dealt with by the Centre and now an endeavour is being made to abandon it.”

The court also noted that there was a “total u-turn” by the ministry when it came to the construction of the PTT.

The Defence Ministry also dismissed the need for the runway based on the existing traffic and lack of congestion of the runway.

“It’s true that for the first two years there were a lot of issues with some officers in the Civil Aviation Ministry. However, things changed considerably when the Civil Aviation Secretary became personally involved in the matter,” said a source involved in the court proceedings.

Also, in place of another runway, a southern taxi track is now being planned for the airport. The tender for the same is expected to be awarded soon.

Renovation project dipped passenger traffic

  • Towards the end of 2017, work had begun on extending the length of the existing runway. The airport was completely shut down twice for two weeks and on Sundays. On the other days, the timings were restricted from 7 am to 5:30 pm.
  • This led to several airlines cancelling flights from the airport, with SpiceJet completely withdrawing for the period of renovation. The airport had about 36 flights at that time, the highest at the airport so far.
  • Last year also, the passenger traffic at the airport had gone down. In 2017-18, about 21.37 lakh passengers boarded flights from the city, whereas in 2018-19, the airport saw about 20.97 lakh passenger traffic. The trajectory was similar for international passengers. The airport had about 1.4 lakh passengers in 2017, which fell to 1.2 lakh in 2018. 
  • “Because of the renovation, we lost our slots at airports in Mumbai and Delhi. This is why there has been a fall in the number of passengers as well. Now, we have written to SpiceJet to return since the renovation is complete,” said an airport official.

Flights currently operational

Destination No. of flights

Delhi           7
Mumbai            5
Bangalore   4
Srinagar           2
Kolkata, Pune, Leh, Kullu, Dubai, Ahmedabad, Sharjah, Hyderabad, Shimla 1

According to a source at the airport, the airport has about 32 retail outlets since December 2018 which are set to increase to 45 in the coming months. Several ATM machines have also been installed at the airport.

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