HT SPOTLIGHT Punjab’s unused airports: Winged dreams, grounded reality
Three airports in Punjab remain grounded despite investment of nearly `90 crore by the government. That has now reached the high court, on petition seeking orders to start flights or return the land acquired for these projects. HT hits the ground to find.punjab Updated: May 12, 2016 18:42 IST
COST: Rs 25 crore
LAND: 127 acres
REDUCED TO STRIP FOR CHARTERED PLANES
What was once envisaged to be an international airport in Ludhiana’s Sahnewal has been reduced to a mere airstrip for chartered flights at a considerable cost to the exchequer. It saw its last regular flight, Air India-Delhi, on May 16, 2014. Spread over 127.5 acres, the airport has a 4,800-footlong runway, which is too short for high-capacity aircraft, much to the discouragement of private airlines. The opening of an international terminal in Mohali, two hours by road from Ludhiana, has also dampened hopes here.
The strip exists since the 1980s for a flying club, and there were some flights in the ’90s, but it was only about six years ago that it got going for a longer time. Since May 13, 2010, the year the runway was re-carpeted at a cost of Rs 10 crore, till May 16, 2014, Air India operated flights between Delhi and Ludhiana. But the timings were erratic and frequency confined to thrice a week. The absence of night landing facility was a deterrent too. “Air India operated only one ATR aircraft (small plane that can land here) from Delhi and used to fly it to three destinations in a day — first to Allahabad, then Kullu and then Ludhiana. Many times owing to delays and cancellations, passengers were compelled to take a taxi to Chandigarh to catch a flight,” recalled VP Jain, airport director. Private airlines have limitations as most of them operate jet-engine B737 and Airbus 320 planes, which require a runway of minimum 6,000 feet.
In the 2013 budget speech, the SAD-BJP government announced plans to expand the airport. Soon after Air India withdrew its flights the state government issued a notification for acquiring 1,827 acres. However, the Greater Ludhiana Area Development Authority (GLADA), entrusted with acquiring the land, was unable to, owing to paucity of funds.
At present, the road to the airport has a railway crossing, from where trains to Delhi and other places pass throughout the day. Security personnel are underemployed since there are no passengers; only the occasional curious visitors. The 13 employees of the Airports Authority of India (AAI) here are active only when there is a chartered flight, usually twice a week.
Vinod Thapar, chairman, Knitwear Club, Ludhiana, said, “Industrial produce in the city accounts for more than 40% of all in Punjab. We have buyers overseas who are unable to reach us directly in the absence of any international airport here. We have to do our business through merchant exporters who charge us for the service.”
COST: Rs 37 crore
LAND: 75 acres
FAULTY PLANNING IS TO BLAME
Despite the infrastructure, the Pathankot domestic airport has not seen a regular flight since 2011. Flights on the lone route, Delhi-Pathankot Kullu, that started after it came up in 2006 were discontinued as it made little financial sense for the airlines. The airport building was built next to the air force station and it airstrip with the efforts of Gurdaspur MP and actor Vinod Khanna, who declared plans to make Pathankot a tourist spot and an industrial hub. It was reduced to an occasional landing facility for Khanna and other VIPs’ chartered flights instead.
At the inauguration on November 21, 2006, the then Union civil aviation minister, Praful Patel, promised more flights than the Delhi-Pathankot Kullu one that operated then. Later, BJP’s former state unit head Ashwani Sharma made a failed attempt to revive flights after he met chief minister Parkash Singh Badal in 2013. “The very idea of flights for Kullu from Delhi via Pathankot was wrong as this was not the preferred route for tourists,” said Ashok Jahaj, a trip organiser. “But, even today if they start flights from Delhi to Srinagar taking a halt here, 100% occupancy is guaranteed. We have to give our customers to Jammu-based travel agencies, as these customers go first to Jammu by road and then take flights for Srinagar,” he added. MP Khanna, who had later promised to restart flights if Narendra Modiled BJP came to power, said he has been persuading airlines and “will try my best to revive this airport”. The airport shares its boundaries with the IAF station and has a strip of about 9000 ft which is good for domestic flights.
COST: Rs 25 crore
LAND: 40 acres
WHERE IS THE FINANCIAL SENSE?
It’s been over three years since the construction of the civilian airport, a dream project of Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, at Virk Kalan village near here. But there’s no sign of a flight yet. Reason: No financial viability.
During the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) blamed the Centre for it, and claimed that flights would start soon after formation of Union government. The National Democratic (NDA) government took power two years ago.
This has led to Sukhbir and his wife, Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal, giving contradictory statements. While Harsimrat last year said that, after the Delhi-Bathinda-Jammu route was found financially unviable, airlines were assessing the viability of a Bathinda Bikaner route. This was later denied by Sukhbir, who wondered how the Bathinda-Bikaner route could be viable if the other was not.
After that, Harsimrat told reporters that surveys on both routes found these unviable. Adding to it, Harsimrat also wondered last year that, if the Bathinda Delhi Shatabdi Express was not getting adequate passengers, how could passengers be expected for flights on that route.
The airport building has been constructed and managed by the Airports Authority of India while the Indian
and occasional air traffic chartered planes. Here, the 9,000-ft runway is according to standards required for big planes; but the apron can accommodate only two 50-seater planes at a time.
RK Kohli, vice-chancellor of the Central University of Punjab here, said the non-functional civilian airport was a reason why the university was not able to bring in international faculty: “Scholars hesitate visiting the place even for guest lectures. We even have to conduct interviews for recruitment at Chandigarh. We have raised the matter with chief minister Parkash Singh Badal.”
Satish Arora, president of Punjab Hotels, Restaurants and Resorts Association, here said, “In meetings conducted by the administration with airlines, we had presented data of inflow of tourists to support requirement of flights from Bathinda. It would have attracted more national and international tourists especially for Takht Sri Damdama Sahib in Talwandi Sabo.”