2005-06-22 12:12:46 UTC
Reputed Business Columnist
Dear Ms Dalal:
I enjoyed your column in INDIAN EXPRESS, June 19, 2005, titled "Wither
Airports?". You were right to highlight the fact that our aviation
authorities are unprepared for the monumental challenge of making our
airports uptodate, including A380-ready. This commendable stance is,
however, in stark contrast to an earlier report by others in the same paper
(on May 27) which blithely recommended that Goa go in for an A380 airport at
a greenfield site (Mopa in Goa) by 2014! Although this report made no
ripples at all, at least that I know of, it may still do incalculable harm
to Goa's already distorted aviation scene by further skewing the badly
needed efforts to improve it. In fact a careful look at the vexed problem of
Goa's aviation scenario may shed useful light on the overall national
problem of urgently updating our airport infrastructure that you have
rightly called for in your June 19 column.
Great Wall of Goa
What the May 27 report failed to disclose was that Goa's sole airport,
Dabolim in the south, is controlled since the early 1960s by the Navy which
places unrealistic restrictions on a tourism oriented facility in the name
of interminably training a couple of squadrons of pilots for carrier based
fighter operation using obsolescent and tricky Sea Harriers.
As you may be aware, the Navy has recently commissioned a mammoth base
called Project Seabird at Karwar about 100 km south of Goa in Karnataka. The
ostensible purpose of this project is to decongest Mumbai harbour. However
there is no commensurate will to decongest Dabolim airport for civilian
flight purposes i.e. by shifting military flight training etc to Seabird or
even other places. The air station there is still only on paper, awaiting
financial and other high level clearances. It could become a reality in the
next phase of the project. Its another matter that the Karwar terrain is not
all that suitable for any airflield which is much more than of minimal
In the mean time, Dabolim has been "booked" for training pilots of MIG29Ks
which have recently been acquired along with an old Russian aircraft
carrier. These carrier based fighters are said to be the first to be ordered
by any Navy in the world. So the prospect of the Navy easing up on civilian
flight restrictions at Dabolim in the foreseeable future are quite dim.
That's why I call the military presence at Dabolim airport the Great Wall of
Goa! The only way out may be to push for joint military/civilian management
which is not unheard of abroad in places like the U.S. But where will the
push for this come from? More on this later.
For the past couple of years, a proposal has been doing the rounds for a
greenfield airport at Mopa in North Goa. There is natural resistance to this
for several reasons. First, it is feared that once Mopa is ready then
civilian flghts at Dabolim will have to cease. There are several precedents
for this. This happened at the Navy air station in Kochi when the
public/private greenfield airport called CIAL came up nearby a few years
ago. The same thing is due to occur at HAL controlled Bangalore airport when
the new BIAL comes up in 2-3 years time.
A discontinuation of civilian flights like this would always be a boon for
the military which would naturally prefer a free run at its bases. It is
another matter whether the Navy, whose essential armament is carrier based
aircraft, really needs an airport with a mammoth 11,000 foot runway which is
fit for jumbo jets (including perhaps the A380 after a suitable upgrade of
the type you described). Thus Dabolim at present, you will appreciate, is a
purely dog-in-the-manger situation.
On the other hand, Mopa would cut into the business of South Goa hotels
which depend heavily on international chartered and scheduled domestic
flights at close-in Dabolim. There is also a strong hunch in Goa that Mopa
would only give a much needed boost to emerging competitor resorts in
southern Maharashtra. In fact the INDIAN EXPRESS article of May 27
graphically shows links to offbeat places like Ratnagiri, Kolhapur,
Sindhudurg etc from Mopa, while ostensibly emphasising an aircraft
(A380)which is meant for hub-to-hub international travel.
Low Cost Aviation
Now that India has finally caught the low cost aviation bug there may be
some hope for beleaguered civil aviation at Dabolim. It is beginning to be
realised that there is a need for more functioning airports including
multiple facilities for big cities. (Note that Goa can be usefully viewed as
a "city state"). In Mumbai the AAI is bitterly regretting having parted with
Juhu airport to the BMC thirty years ago for road building purposes. There
is talk of reopening Bangalore and Hyderabad airports even when BIAL and
HIAL are operational. Even the Kochi naval airport is being eyed again for
civilian use! But all this may be wishful thinking now.
At Pune, however, industry bigwigs have succeeded in getting the IAF to
substantially increase the watch hours (by 40% from 10 hours to 14 hours per
day) at Lohegaon airport. In stark contrast to the Navy at Dabolim, the Air
Chief has even made reassuring comments about sharing "national assets" like
airports. But at Pune the real test will come when the new Chakan airport is
promoted in a few years time. In any event, the urgent need for effective
joint use and management of military air bases is clearly underlined in the
present vexatious scenario.
In view of the foregong, it is odd that in the face of the severe
bottlenecks we are reportedly facing at our airports there is this
persistent blindspot about the fundamental source of problems there viz the
military controls which apparently account for a substantial part of the
constraints faced. As many as 25 airports have such constraints. In addition
air space restrictions by the military such as at Delhi create their own
problems for aircraft movements. All these may well be the result of "holy
cow" treatment of military matters by the civilian authoriities all along.
Without enlightened review and response to civilian imperatives proactively
by the military itself (except where it suits its own purposes) the only
options for Indian aviation are either to burn precious fuel while waiting
for slots to open up or keep capital assets idle on the ground or go in for
costly and time consuming greenfield airport projects with their attendant
risks of humungous land scams. All this only militates against the diffusion
of low cost aviation which is the need of the hour in a big and populous
country like India with low but now rapidly growing purchasing power.
The Policy Imperative
There clearly seems to be an urgent need for a high level review of the
military controls in important airports like Goa and the expeditious
dismantling of flight restrictions on civilian flights subject of course to
the usual needs for sensible security safeguards) and the establishment of
procedures for effective joint use and management.
If such a review is conducted and implemened then perhaps Seabird will get
expedited, the Navy will cut back at Dabolim, Mopa can come up (not as a pie
in the sky A380 airport but something more practical and prompt). And the
Goan economy and society would benefit immeasurably -- as would the larger
Indian scene as a whole. Any assist you may be able to render to this
worthwhile cause in your privileged position of influencing public opinion
would be much apprecated. If you need any additional information please let
I am marking a cc to goanet.org where there is a measure of interest in this
vexed issue and a discussion has been going on about it for some time now.
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