With the latest 20-day closure, the Chandigarh international airport will move a step closer to landing wide-bodied aircraft essential for global connectivity besides getting equipped for seamless flight operations during the foggy season. More immediately, the operation hours will increase by an hour and half to 6pm from the next month, and the airport will remain operational on Sundays from July 1 onwards. Also, there will be no further closure of the airport.
The airport has been closed to extend the runway from the present 9,000 feet to 10, 400 feet. Besides this, technicians will also install ground lights and other navigation aides to ensure comfortable landing during the foggy season. Manpower training is also underway for 24×7 operation hours against only daytime working at present.
The airport has been working only during the daylight hours since October last year as much of the runway repair has been happening at night.
Many wonder whether continuous disruption of flights will for runway repair will have any positive impact on passenger growth and wider domestic and global connectivity in near future.
Airport CEO Suneel Dutt says once the runway length is increased and airport gets unrestricted operation hours, more airlines will be tempted to start new flights from here and connect the city with overseas destinations.
The extended runway, he says, will be able to land wide-bodied aircraft for long-haul destinations to Europe or the US, which was not feasible on the existing runway.
The next big leap
The question on the minds of most travelers is that when will they get to board a flight to London, Frankfurt, Sydney, Singapore or Washington from the Mohali airport.
At present, the airport is connected only to Dubai and Sharjah in the Middle East, and to Thailand in Southeast Asia. People also want domestic connectivity to Goa, Kolkata, Chennai, Raipur etc.
Indian Air forces Chandigarh station, which is undertaking the runway enhancement work and manpower buildup for round-the-clock operations, has said in a statement that its runway resurfacing work is divided into three main phases. The completion of Phase II, which will take place by the end of this year, will lead to regular day operations on the extended runway.
“Phase III involves fitment of runway lights and other navigational aids. End of Phase III will permit unrestricted day and night operations at the airport airfields. Completion of Phase III is envisaged in the first half of 2019,” it adds.
IAF will also install a CAT II ILS system, which will permit landing even when the visibility is down to 350 metres before the onset of 2019 winter. It adds that AAI is also exploring the advanced Cat III (ILS) system that permits operations even when the visibility is as low as 100 metres. At present, the airport does not permit any landing if the runway visibility drops below 1200 metres.
But airport CEO Dutt says that aviation industry does not work on vague deadlines. “We want official release of these assurances through IAFs NOTAM so that we can convince airlines to operate from here,” he said.
A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) is a notice filed with an aviation authority that contains information concerning the establishment, conditions or change in any aeronautical facility, service, procedure or hazard, the timely knowledge of which is essential to personnel and systems concerned with flight operations. Dutt says several other factors like bilateral aviation treaties between countries will also play a vital role in the expansion of the airport. “But once these facilities are officially notified, our traffic will surely increase,” he adds
Stakeholders in no mood to relent
Sanjeev Vashisht, former president, Mohali Industrial Association, whose PIL led the Punjab and Haryana High court to monitor airport expansion, says he will not rest till the airport is fully functional.
“Regardless of the official stand, we want the airport to at least get connected to one destination in Europe, be it London, Germany or France, by next year so that access to US gets easy. On the Eastern front, flight to Singapore and Malaysia will open the doorways to New Zealand and Australia.”
No government or airline can deny the potential of this airport, says Vashisht. He adds, “35% of traffic at the Delhi airport comes from Punjab and most of the flyers will be happy to fly from Chandigarh if given the option.” Vashisht said he will keep knocking at the HC doors if the authorities try to scuttle operations here.
It was the 2015 petition by the Mohali Industrial Association that led to start of the first international flight from Chandigarh.
Meanwhile, the runway expansion has taken its toll on the footfall at the airport, which saw a mere 13.7% rise in domestic passenger traffic in the 2017-18 fiscal year, its lowest ever growth in the last five years. International traffic has picked up but the count of flyers remains low in absolute numbers.
This demonstrates that the airport growth story has been hit severely. Neither the flyers nor the airlines are happy with the present uncertainty. MR Jindal, Air Indias Chandigarh station head, sums up sentiments of most airlines, when he says if they get a conducive environment for expansion, nothing can stop this airport from getting more domestic and international flights.
5 steps to understand issues of the airport
How did it come up?
The airport traces its origins to setting up of an Indian Air Force base in Chandigarh in 1961 as a major air logistics node of the Indian troops deployed in Jammu and Kashmir. The civil enclave was opened in the mid-1960s adjacent to the air force base. State carrier Indian Airlines was the first to begin the Delhi flight in 1967. Jet Airways was the first private airline to start operations in 1999. Later, more private airlines followed suit.
Who does what here?
While the Airport Authority of India controls the functioning of the new civil terminal in partnership with Punjab and Haryana, the runway operation and air traffic control is under the Chandigarh Air Force station. They also control the operation hours of the commercial passenger flights.
Which destinations does the airport service at present?
It is connected to Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Leh, Srinagar, Jaipur, Pune and Kullu. The international circuit includes Dubai, Sharjah and Bangkok.
What is the main hindrance in expansion?
The airport is like an old engine in a brand new luxury car. The airport boasts a ₹1400-crore terminal, but the existing runway and ancillary ground facilities like winter landing are primitive. That is the reason the airport hasnt been able to spread its wings. Many blame both the AAI and IAF, which did not ensure runway repair when the new terminal was being constructed. Another major problem that affects the airport is of limited operation hours as the IAF does not have enough manpower for night operations.
By when are smooth operations expected?
IAF has already undertaken construction of runway and accrual of manpower. It has promised to complete its work by the first half of 2019. Now it is up to the airport authorities to push passenger growth and live up to the aspiration of the regions flyers.