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Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale on why Purandar international airport will boost make-in-India plans

New airport will give tremendous boost to the local community as also create jobs in variety of direct and indirect enterprises, which will come up

pune Updated: Jul 07, 2018 17:33 IST
Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale (retd)
Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale (retd)
Pune,Bhushan Gokhale,new international airports
Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale (retd)(RAHUL RAUT )

“The Wright Brothers created the single greatest cultural force since the invention of writing. The airplane became the first World Wide Web, bringing people, languages, ideas, and values together.” - Bill Gates, 12 July 2014.

Since the advent of aircraft 115 years ago, the medium of air has compressed the dimensions of distance and time. It has connected cities, countries and continents. Civil aviation is on high growth trajectory in India. It is expected that from the third ranking currently, by 2022 India will be the second biggest aviation market in the world. With the recent initiatives of Ude Deshka Aam Nagrik (UDAN) and regional connectivity scheme (RCS), more number of people will be able to travel. Additional airports, both brown-field and green-field, will help in adding to the infrastructure, giving boost to the trade, tourism, hospitality and many other sectors, creating more jobs.

This growth in aviation is also visible at Pune airport. Although it is a shared single runway operation, in the last decade or so, passenger traffic has grown over 20% every year, making Pune the ninth busiest destination in the country, ahead of many state capitals.

If one is to look at the data, only 60,000 passengers had travelled from Pune in 2004-5. Whereas, today almost 90 lakh passengers fly to various destinations within the country and to few places abroad. The statistics indicate that almost 30% of passengers going abroad from Mumbai are from Pune region and so is the cargo. Although a cargo hub has been established recently at the present airport it is woefully short for the volume Pune region requires, especially for urgent exports of time-bound deliveries such as vaccines as well as agriculture, floriculture and meat products. Therefore, to sustain the momentum of growth for this region, Pune needs an independent international airport.

Almost 15 years ago a suitable site had been selected at Chakan and cleared by all ministries, but the acquisition of requisite land could not take place. With a new Mumbai airport coming up near Panvel, the Maharashtra government, in consultation with the central ministries of Defence, Civil Aviation and Environment has earmarked a site near Purandar, aptly to be named as Chhatrapati Sambhajiraje international airport.

Maharashtra airports development corporation (MADC) is presently negotiating with farmers for acquisition of land. One of the win-win options for such acquisition could be to make these farmers partners in perpetuity in the project on the lines of success story of Magarpatta city. The new airport will give tremendous boost to the local community as also create jobs in variety of direct and indirect enterprises, which will need to come up for functioning of the airport. The new airport can also have an aerospace industrial park to include maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), which will boost make-in-India projects.

The present shared airport at Lohegaon is a major airbase for the Indian Air Force. The base has contributed to every war since the independence of India. Hawker Tempest fighters operating from Lohegaon had supported the Hyderabad annexation, codenamed Op Polo, in September 1948. In December 1961, the Canberras and Hunter aircraft had taken decisive part from Pune in ‘Op Vijay’, which resulted in liberation of Goa. Although located in-depth from the Western border, the Canberra bombers were again at the forefront with their long-range bombing raids over Pakistan, in both 1965 and 1971 wars. In the recently held country-wide Indian Air Force ‘Exercise Gaganshakti’, with the help of air-to-air refueling, the Su-30 aircraft based at Pune struck targets in areas as far as northern Rajasthan and in the North-East of our country. Similar extended range strikes had also been demonstrated for Maritime operations on the islands of the Western coast. The in-depth airfield of Pune has truly been a front-line airbase for all times.

In 1960s what started as a small parking area for few privately owned aircraft, soon had domestic civil air flights operating from Lohegaon, with Indian Airlines flying travellers to Mumbai from where passengers could connect to other destinations within the country or abroad. By the late 1970s, Pune had started its journey to be a metropolis and many industries were set up in the auto and IT sectors in particular. From a population of a mere seven lakh in the 1960s, Pune is nearing a head count of about 60 lakh, making it the eighth most populated city in the country and 101st in the world.

Pune is also surrounded by a region which is rich in agriculture, floriculture and industries based in several Maharashtra state industrial centres. Extending to Satara and beyond, to Baramati and beyond towards Solapur and towards Ahmednagar; the Pune region contributes both to the passenger traffic as well as to cargo movement.

This metropolis, therefore, certainly needs a separate international airport. Presently only four destinations abroad are connected from Pune. There are flights to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah in the Gulf and to Frankfurt in Germany. Many passengers travel by road to Mumbai to catch flights to destinations abroad, but with most of the arrivals at Mumbai being at night, it is very inconvenient and risky for these passengers to travel by road at night, with most of the road accidents taking place during these wee hours of the night.

Although there are possibilities to fly from Pune to other destinations abroad, the Lohegaon runway is not long enough for wide-body aircraft which can fly directly to their destinations without unnecessary technical halts en-route for refueling. The runway also cannot be extended due to some sub judice issues.

Other constraint of operating from Lohegaon is that it has only a single runway. Every time there is need for re-paving or major repairs to be carried out on the runway, civil traffic gets either suspended or curtailed.

Also because of the single runway, in case of even an incident such as tyre-burst of an aircraft can disrupt the entire civil flights schedule for hours or for the whole day.

The Punekars and those in the neighbourhood region are anxiously looking forward to the new airport at Purandar. Undoubtedly, the project should also include easy and faster access from the city both by road and by Metro. A greenfield airport will also enable state-of-the-art security systems with luggage including hand baggage being scanned on the perimeter itself. Although India is not a signatory to the UN-sponsored Carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation (CORSIA), Kochi already has a fully solar-powered airport and India has four other airports which have been declared carbon neutral. The proposed airport of Pune can incorporate all these modern technologies to be environment friendly.

Incidentally, with increased inimical activities in the Indian Ocean, the Air Force base at Lohegaon has become strategically important with added responsibility to enhance protection of maritime interests and to ensure peace, which will enable unhampered development of Pune region. I am very hopeful and optimistic that Pune will get an independent international airport, which will give further economic boost to the region including increased job opportunities. After all someone has rightly said: “A mile on highway will take you to only one mile, but a mile on runway will take you anywhere.”

First Published: Jul 03, 2018 14:33 IST