A name for the airport but no land – endless woes for an airport at Pune: Part One

  • Pune is the largest city in India without a dedicated airport
  • Current airport is a civilian enclave at defense airport
  • Airport has more flights at night than day
  • When the current expansion is complete, the airport would have run out of all possible expansion scenarios
  • Current airport cannot handle widebody flights
  • Current terminal, smaller than the HAL terminal at Bengaluru, handles more passengers than what HAL Bengaluru ever did

As India prepared to start shipping the Covishield vaccine – manufactured by Serum Institute of India (SII) at its plant on the outskirts of Pune, I had tweeted about the challenges at Pune. 

Last week, there were more unpleasant updates about Pune airport. The airport will be closed for operations from April 26 to May 09. Netizens took to twitter to voice their opinion about the airport, or rather the lack of it. Pune is the largest city by population in the country which does not have a dedicated airport. With the urban conglomerate having a population of over 50 lakh people, the city has to depend on the civil enclave at Air Force Station Lohegaon for air connectivity.

Air Force Station Lohegaon and the civil enclave

AFS Lohegaon has been one of the elite air bases of the Indian Air Force (IAF). The airbase where the Sukhoi aircraft were inducted and the base which continues to host a few squadrons of the ace fighter of the IAF. With its strategic location, the air base is well located to handle the strategic assets on the western coast of the country – including safeguarding Mumbai, the financial capital of the country.

Over the last two decades, the airbase has seen upgrades under the MAFI project. The Pune Airport is a civil enclave located at the western end on the southern side of the runway. 

Aviation geeks who follow airport developments would remember the time when the airport had 04 bays and would operate from sunrise to sunset. This also included a closure from 0800hrs to 1030hrs – a time which was dedicated exclusively for fighter flying and continues till date. The four power in power out bays gave way to six power in push back bays and night landing facility was extended to civil operations. The apron was extended towards the fuel farm and a parallel taxiway was built to ensure lower runway occupancy time which will help add more movements. 

The high point for the airport came in July 2008 when German carrier Lufthansa inaugurated its non-stop service to Frankfurt. The 48 seat – Business class only service was the first to Asia Pacific! Thus started the operations with night landing and the Indian Air Force also allowed flights beyond 2230 hours while restricting flights between 2000hrs to 2230hrs, a restriction which was lifted in 2012.

Pune is the only city in the country, where there are more scheduled flights during the night than there are during the day! 

So what are the challenges?

There simply is no space for expansion. A collection of images from Google Earth from 2008 onwards show how the civil dispersal has grown and how there is no space left now for any more growth. These images are available to everyone for free on Google Earth but for the interest of the reader I have taken snippets and marked the development over the years.

An airport comprises three main areas – runway, apron and terminal. The runway should be long and wide enough to handle the aircraft which intend to operate at the airport and should be equipped with the necessary aids to ensure smooth and safe traffic. These include Instrumentation Landing System, center line lights, a parallel taxiway amongst others.

The apron consists of the area where the aircraft are parked. Referred to by many other names like bays or dispersal, the area should have enough space to cater to the demand of the airport and should come with allied infrastructure like isolation bay and bays which cater to different types of aircraft (narrowbody and widebody). 

The terminal – the last of the three is tied up with what is often known as city side infrastructure. It comprises all the facilities needed for smooth handling of passengers at departure and arrival and includes baggage management area, baggage belts, check-in counters amongst many other important facilities. The terminal needs to have access to parking, public transport, taxi stand, etc 

In case of Pune, the runway is short and couldn’t allow Lufthansa to operate a specially configured aircraft non-stop to Frankfurt! The apron can only accommodate narrowbody aircraft which means there cannot be any intercontinental flights from Pune and less said the better about the terminal. It is so small that one can see the apron while you are entering the terminal! 

Lufthansa has since stopped services to Pune and the only connection which the city has is to Dubai with Spicejet operating a daily flight and Air India Express operating thrice a week – pre COVID19.

For a district whose population went up from 72.3 lakhs in 2001 to 94.29 lakhs in 2011, the only growth the airport has seen is doubling of bays and an expanded terminal! For a city which is ranked seventh by GDP in the country, it is a shame that it has not had a dedicated airport! 

Link to Part Two of the article

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