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The Mumbai Project: Mumbai's new flight plan

Once its Rs 7,500-crore revamp is done, Mumbai's airport will be world-class. But for India's busiest airport, is anything but an aerotropolis - an airport city - like Amsterdam's good enough? Soubhik Mitra finds out...Talk to us...Check out the special on The Mumbai Project

india Updated: Dec 15, 2007 17:27 IST
Soubhik Mitra

"Airports will shape business location and urban development in the 21st century as much as highways did in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th and seaports in the 18th." - John Kasarda, Director, Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative, University of North Carolina, on his website www.aerotropolis.com (Check out the special on The Mumbai Project)

It's 2 pm on a Wednesday, lean time at India's busiest airport, when B.S. Keshav, an architect with Patni Computers, steps into the airy, light-filled, chrome-and-glass wonder that is the brand new Terminal 1B at Mumbai's domestic airport. Keshav is a frequent flyer, spending 72 hours a week shuttling between airports, and every visit to the Mumbai airport in the last 15 months - since its operations were privatised - makes him feel a little better about his travel experience.

He points to the baggage trolleys neatly stacked near the entrance. "At some airports, it's a pain to find trolleys, especially when you have family and luggage together," he said.

The 45-year-old, who often blogs his experiences at various airports, collects both his to and fro boarding passes from the airport for his day-long business trips. "It's easier here," he said. "We have 80 check-in counters, unlike Delhi where one still has to queue up during peak hours. Also, we have boarding-pass kiosks where you just need to key in the PNR number and choose your seat."

Before you think the shining, new domestic terminal - renovated for Rs 380 crore by Mumbai International Airport Ltd, a private consortium led by the GVK group - is a vision of the future, stop. It's a temporary facility, to be demolished in phases between 2015 and 2020: India's busiest airport will get a combined Rs 7,500-crore domestic and international terminal. Even that will not be enough.

Mumbai is expected to handle 25 million air passengers a year by March 2008, or 68,493 every day. That figure will become almost double by 2012. Five years from today, by the time the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority and the airport management finish building a six-lane elevated approach road, (and the Metro rail station planned there also comes up), the pressure on the airport will be too much.

A second airport at Panvel could ease some of the burden (see What's Up With the New Airport at Panvel). However, none of this will make life simpler for the global business traveller. For him, an internationally popular concept called 'aerotropolis', literally meaning 'airport city', could be the answer.

Conceived by John Kasarda, director of Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it offers the business traveller the option of not leaving the airport at all. He can check in at a hotel near the terminals, finish his meetings and other work there and leave without ever entering the city.

Look no further than Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport

About 58,000 people are employed here, and the passenger terminal - a mix of shopping, dining and entertainment arcades - doubles as a suburban mall accessible to air travellers and the general public. Amsterdam residents regularly shop and relax in the public areas, especially on Sundays, when most city stores are closed. "Currently, it is difficult to comment (on) whether an aerotropolis is possible," said a GVK spokesperson. "The master plan is still being worked out. We are acquiring land in Sahar."

It is happening elsewhere in India

Pragati 47, a Delhi infrastructure firm, will build an aerotropolis in Andul, about 175 km from Kolkata, within three years.
"It will not only make air travel more time-efficient, but will create a revenue-making machinery of its own," said Raj Shekhar Agarwal, managing director of Pragati 47.

Kasarda, during a recent visit to the upcoming Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad, said it has the potential to become an airport city.
Back at Mumbai's domestic terminal, the changes continue. Recently, some budget airlines launched the roving check-in facility: Airport staff with hand-held devices print out your boarding pass on Bluetooth-enabled mobile printers.

Two new rapid-exit taxiways have cut down take-off time and daily take-offs and landings have crossed 700, around 100 more than May 2006.
Architect Keshav now has time on his hands. He can wander the 30 stores selling food, accessories and books.

Coming soon is a huge duty-free shopping area. The airport is wi-fi-enabled, so Keshav can also fine-tune a presentation or blog.
For now, it will have to do. It still takes nearly two hours to get to the airport from downtown Mumbai, and don't even think yet of how to get to the new airport in Panvel, when it is built. So, for now, enjoy the changes at Mumbai airport. Just don't dream of Amsterdam, Bangkok or Shanghai.

Reality check: What's up with the new airport in Panvel?
Commercial artist Manjula Gemnani leaves her Bandra home at 7 am for the airport. But it's 9.30 am before she manages to step into the international terminal at Sahar.

If she spent Rs 50 on toll charges, she would reach the upcoming airport near Panvel in less time. "The only bottleneck to Panvel is Dharavi. Once you pass that, it'll be a dream ride," she said.

Mumbai's second airport seems to be heading rapidly towards the runway after a three-month wait in the parking bay.

Already, four developers - Scott Wilson (UK), Louis Berger (US), Maunsell (Singapore) and Mott McDonalds (India) - have been shortlisted from 151 developers for the prime consultant's job in developing the Rs 10,000-crore facility.

The new airport will be constructed on 1,140 hectares near Panvel, 35 km from the Mumbai airport.

City and Industrial Development Corporation (Cidco) still needs to acquire 295 hectares of private land. The state will chip in with 225 hectares. "The final plan will need to be approved by Cidco's board, after that the state government and finally the Centre," said Cidco spokesperson Buddhabhushan Gaikwad.

Teams from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and Pune-based Central Water and Power Research Station are working on two different studies on the barren, dusty site. While IIT-ians are doing an environmental impact study, the Pune agency is conducting a hydrological survey, a mandatory requirement before construction.

Union Aviation Minister Praful Patel has set December as the deadline to wrap up the bidding process. The first phase of the airport is expected to be complete by 2012. It is forecast that Mumbai will handle 25 million air passengers a year by March 2008. That figure is likely to go up to 91 million every year by 2030-31. The existing airport, after its extension, will be able to handle only 40 million passengers. That's why a new airport is needed at Panvel.

Global comparison

As foreign money pours into Mumbai's businesses and more international firms set up shop here, getting into the city from the airport and to the airport from the city is a nightmare for the global business traveller. An international concept called 'aerotropolis', literally meaning 'airport city', could be the solution.

Conceived by John Kasarda, director of Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, it talks about unique infrastructure development within airports.

If we have that, a business traveller need not leave the airport limits at all. He can simply check in at a hotel near the terminals, finish his meetings and other work and leave without ever entering the city.

This is a concept popular across the world, and catching on in India too: Pragati 47, a Delhi infrastructure firm, will build an aerotropolis in Andul, 175 km from Kolkata, within three years. "It will not only make air travel more time-efficient, but will create a revenue-making machinery of its own," said Raj Shekhar Agarwal, MD of Pragati 47.

Kasarda, during a recent visit to the upcoming Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad, said it has the potential to become a massive 'airport city'.

The airport is being developed by the GMR group, which is also modernising Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi.
Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is a successful airport city. About 58,000 people are employed by it, and its passenger terminal - containing a mix of shopping, dining and entertainment arcades - doubles as a suburban mall that is accessible to air travellers and the general public. Amsterdam residents regularly shop and relax in the public areas, especially on Sundays, when most city stores are closed.

Another example is Lantau Island, where the newly opened Hong Kong International Airport is spawning highly visible business and residential clusters. In late 1999, Walt Disney Company announced that it would open its third theme park (Hong Kong Disneyland) on Lantau to take advantage of the airport and its high-speed rail and expressway links to Hong Kong.

Another aerotropolis is booming at Incheon, Korea, where the government is creating a 24-hour aviation city on Yongjong Island, about 80 km west of downtown Seoul.

The new international airport anchors an expansive urban agglomeration comprised of commercial, industrial, residential and tourism sectors. Its centerpiece is Media Valley, Korea's version of Silicon Valley.

Is this enough?

Problem 1: Slum rehabilitation

Mumbai airport has roughly 2,000 acres, of which 200 are encroached upon by slums that have come up in the past 40 years. An estimated 80,000 people live in seven slum clusters that spread across a curve from Kurla to Andheri. Even 15 months after a private consortium took over the airport's management, slumdwellers backed by political parties and social organisations allege that the consortium is yet to have a dialogue with them.
Around 80 per cent of the slumdwellers make their living off the airport. Most of them work as trolley retrievers, bird scarers, cargo handlers or repairmen. Hence, their main demand is that they be rehoused near the airport. The airport management and state government are struggling to find land nearby, with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), the nodal agency for slum rehabilitation, managing to offer only 5,000 flats from its kitty.

Problem 2: Approach roads
The MMRDA and the airport management are jointly building a six-lane elevated approach road, but it will be at least five years before it is completed. But the airport is expected to handle 25 million passengers a year by March 2008, making it the 40th busiest airport in the world. There is a Metro rail station proposed near Hotel Leela to ease road traffic to the airport, but that too will take another five years.

Problem 3: Will it be too late?
By the time the roads and Metro are in place, passenger traffic will have risen to 40 million a year. Will both together be able to handle the pressure?

The buck stops here

Sanjay Reddy, MD, Mumbai International Airport Ltd

You want to change the airport from a transit point to a destination. How will you do that?
I have asked my team to list 100 unique facilities available at airports the world over. We will incorporate elements that suit people here. For instance, many airports have casinos, but it's illegal here.

What's likely to be on the list?
Swimming pools, entertainment zones, shopping arcades, restaurants etc. Already, we are wi-fi-enabled.

You are spending a lot on interim refurbishment, which will have to be taken apart for the integrated terminal. Has any airport managed such a successful transition?
Ours is a unique infrastructure project with its own challenges and opportunities. It is unlike any other airport. With the interim upgrade, we hope to enhance the passenger experience. At the same time, we have also started implementing the overall modernisation plan.

Access to the international terminal is still a problem.
The approach road is not within our purview. We are working closely with state agencies to construct an elevated road from the Western Express Highway to the terminal to enable quicker access.

Some flyers are upset that it is a no-smoking zone and the toilets are tucked away in a corner.
The location of toilets is based upon passenger movement patterns. We are examining if we can provide a smoking zone.

Will you miss the deadline because of the delay in slum rehabilitation?
We will follow the state's slum rehab policy. We have to break structures, take care of the people living in them and create a structure that meets global standards.