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Bags packed, ready to go

With three months left, India’s largest airport terminal is attracting world attention as it races to the finish line, says Samar Halarnkar.

delhi Updated: Mar 01, 2010 00:26 IST
Samar Halarnkar

“I would like to sleep.”

When you leave for work at 7:30 am and return by 11:30 pm every day, survive on adrenaline, a dab of rice and vegetable for lunch, sleep for four hours and have a mission to complete India’s biggest airport terminal in a world-record time of 37 months, that’s an unsurprising ambition.

But mechanical engineer I. Prabhakara Rao (50) can think of no rest until he meets his July deadline to open T3, Delhi’s new international and domestic terminal — the world’s sixth largest — three months before the Commonwealth Games.

Larger than the new terminals of Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore combined, T3 cannot afford the just-in-time approach that much of Delhi is taking, with some infrastructure projects unlikely to meet the Games deadline of October.

In a country notorious for eternally scrambling to catch up, T3 is the biggest Indian example of the build-and-they-will-come infrastructure philosophy that China has used to spur growth.

The original annual traffic projections of 20 million for 2010 were revised to 30 million after Rao, CEO (Airport Development) of Delhi airport developer GMR held more than 120 meetings with various agencies in the travel trade. Just as well: Delhi already handles 25 million people today, despite 9/11 and the slowdown.

Mindful of an opening week fiasco when employees didn’t know how to run the baggage-handling system and flights were finally turned away at Heathrow’s state-of-the-art terminal 5 in 2008, Rao has kick-started detailed tests before commercial flights start landing in July.

“I don’t want a (Heathrow-style) T5 fiasco,” says Rao emphatically. “In three months we want everyone to know, be absolutely clear, what needs to be done."

What the Delhi Metro did for Delhi’s commuting, T3 hopes to do for its air traffic. Make it fast, make it world class, and create a new Indian standard.

T3: Fast and furious

So today, more than 100 wide-eyed staff from 10 airlines and ground-handling firms stream in to the cavernous, dusty departure hall.

Lugging more than 1,000 pieces of luggage, they start the first major trial of India’s most advanced baggage-handling system. It even has a CT-scan, like those used in hospitals, to virtually dice every inch of suspicious luggage.

The check-in displays are up and running, announcing PanAm flights —complete with the logo of the defunct American airline — to Paris, Kathmandu and New York.

“Things are going well,” shouts Yvonne Kuger, above the din and amid the dust and frenzy around her. A cheerful, calm woman, she’s head of Operations Readiness Airport Transfer, a consulting team from Munich that’s already helped Rao’s GMR group activate the Hyderabad airport and Delhi’s new domestic terminal 1-D. “It’s a tight deadline, but we’ll make it.”

Singapore’s gleaming Changi terminal took 70 months to build, Heathrow’s new terminal T5 took more than 65, so wasn’t this seemingly impossible deadline for Delhi a gamble?

“I don’t gamble,” says Rao, a lean, intense man who has spent 26 years building power, chemical and steel plants. “I am a hardcore project manager.”

He says the secret is “planning, planning, planning”, of men, materials and machinery.

Take materials: At its peak, construction needed 1,000 trucks of stone and mud, driven in silently every night through back roads to the airport, avoiding the main highways.

Take men: When construction was at its most frenetic, 37,000 workers were used. To be motivated and productive, they were housed by GMR (20,000 houses are still in use) on the airport premises, with power, food, sewage lines, a village-like Sunday market, even a Sunday movie (motivational films like Chak de India).

Desi, Global solutions

The speed of construction at T3 has attracted international attention. Streams of visitors file in and out every day of the sprawling construction site.

To take lessons for their own future expansions, officials from Bejing and Singapore come to study how Delhi is throwing up a terminal this fast. Today, French business students are trawling the international and departure terminals, each 1.2 km in length with a total of 78 shiny, new aerobridges.

T3 is a case study of unforeseen, unique problems and how to fix them.

When GMR took charge of Delhi International Airport Ltd (DIAL), to use its official name, on May 4, 2006, the first thing they had to do was revise their carefully drafted master plan.

There was the small matter of a village in the middle of the project area, and it could not be moved. So, a new master plan had to be drawn up - skirting the village.

When work finally did start by September 2006, typically Indian challenges emerged. Like the new runway that had to be extended by 800 m, thanks to an immovable Shiva statue in the flight path. Incoming aircraft must clear 1.4 km of runway before they can touch down.

With construction in the final, frenetic phases, the results of using the best in the business are evident.

With a skill honed on the world’s highest building, the Burj Khalifa, Chinese workers are fixing the last of the 1 sq km of glass being wrapped around T3. A Singapore company is handling the steel, an American company the aerobridges. The chief contractor is Indian engineering giant Larsen and Toubro, global veteran of highways, nuclear plants and more.

Work now goes on 24/7 as Rao and a multinational team of nearly 25,000 workers, 300 engineers and other specialists race towards the official opening in July.

For now, Rao — whose son, an engineer and MBA, does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps — must manage with half the sleep a man his age needs.

“There is no choice,” he says. “It just has to be done.”