Flights of fancy: 3 domestic airports in Punjab remain grounded
Opened with much fanfare, domestic airports in Bathinda, Ludhiana and Pathankot have failed to live up to their early promise. They have remained non-functional for long periods with no domestic flights or have been underused. The Punjab and Haryana high court has given the Centre last chance to file response on a PIL seeking start of flights from these facilities. HT reporters visited airports for a first-hand look.
Non-operational since 2014, Sahnewal airport is waiting for ‘Udan’
Ludhiana: It was almost three years ago that the last domestic flight landed at the Sahnewal airport which is being currently used only for operating chartered flights.
But the airport authorities have now pinned hopes on the regional air connectivity scheme, UDAN, for revival of the domestic flight operations. Airlines have already started surveying the airport and domestic flights are expected to commence by September this year, according to airport officials. The repair work at the airport has started and the contractor has been asked to complete it by August.
The airport, which has a runaway of 1,463 metres feasible for a 42-seater aircraft, has turned into a white elephant. There is hardly any revenue, as no flight was operated since 2014. Business houses have been using the airport to park their chartered planes. The airport authorities have been charging only ?72 per night, which is even lower than the car parking charges at a shopping mall.
Amardeep Nehra, officiating airport director, said the airport is fully functional and Doppler VHR omni-directional radio range (DVOR) has been installed. The airport has anti-hijacking staff, besides its own security force and fire brigade personnel. Scanning machines are also expected to be installed shortly.
Only three flights a week from Bathinda to Delhi
Bathinda: The small domestic airport in Bathinda remained non-functional for three years, but has finally got three flights a week to Delhi.
Air India’s regional arm Alliance Air started the Delhi-Bathinda-Delhi flight in December 2016, barely months before the state assembly elections, and has sustained 50-55% occupancy. Set up in 2012 at a cost of Rs 25 crore, the airport shares the runway of the adjoining Indian Air Force base for the 70-seater ATR-72 aircraft thrice a week — Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Air Alliance manager Ramesh Ram gives credit to the Centre’s “regional connectivity scheme” which has helped reduce the air fare from Rs 2,800 to Rs 1,700 for the Delhi-Bathinda-Delhi flight. “The subsidy is paid by the government and may help introduce more flights from here” he said.
However, officials of the Airports Authority of India (AAI) were tight-lipped over the financial viability of running the operations with a thrice-a-week flight only. The airport does not have a single tuck shop, whereas the airport security has been handed to Punjab Police who are paid by the AAI. The airport still awaits its own dedicated road. The travellers have to cover a distance of 8 kilometres on the existing link road to reach the airport that is just 1.5km off the Bathinda-Malout state highway. A dedicated road was proposed in 2012, but the idea was dropped in absence of any flight for three years.
6 years on, not a single flight from Pathankot
Pathankot: With not a single domestic flight in the past six years, the airport in Pathankot wears a deserted look.
Built at a cost of ?37 crore almost 11 years ago, the airport, which has a “ready to use” airstrip and proper infrastructure, had domestic flight operations for the initial two-and-a-half years. Air Deccan, a private airline, ran its service, but suspended its operations due to poor occupancy on its flights.
Later, Air India also agreed to operate on this sector and started its flights in 2010, thanks to concerted efforts of then MP from Gurdaspur and former Union minister Vinod Khanna. But it did not carry on for long. The airline halted its operations from the airport a year later, citing losses. And, there has not been any domestic flight since then.
The runway of the airport is being used by the army to transports goods and personnel off and on. There is also an occasional chartered flight carrying VIPs and film actors, especially during the poll season.
Rajesh Pushkarna, a local businessman, blames the flight schedules for the failure of airlines to do well on this sector. “The flight timings were not suitable for business travellers and others who wanted to reach Delhi and return in the evening the same day,” he said.
(Contributed by Prabhjit Singh, Vinay Dhingra and Tarsem Singh Deogan)