- The new airport has a name but no land!
- City is punching above its weight, having handled more passengers than Ahmedabad
Over the last decade there were many cities which formed associations to start attracting air traffic. While airlines do pay attention to such associations, what matters in the end is the commercial viability and the need of the industry. Pune had made its mark on the world map much before the current vaccine frenzy. The reason Lufthansa started flights to Pune was the concentration of German industries (over 200 companies) in and around Pune which saw a spike in travel to Germany.
The city has a mix of Information Technology, Automotive and Heavy Industries, Pharma and education as its main economic movers. All of which rely on the airport at Mumbai, with the uncertain time taken for the journey between the two cities for international connection. But international connections are just one part of the story. In the domestic sectors, airlines are not free to add flights since the slots are not cleared by the Indian Air Force – rightly so since the interests of the IAF are paramount and the airport is owned and operated by the IAF. This has meant that there are many major cities in the country which are not connected directly from Pune and in cases where they are, they are connected by red eye flights and are monopoly sectors for the airline. Lack of competition hampers growth of the sector and leads to higher fares for the consumer.
Ironic as it may sound but the new airport at Pune already has a name! The Chhatrapati Sambhaji Raje International Airport is how the new airport is being referred to, but there is one glitch – the location is not yet finalised!
In the early part of 2000s, a tentative site was finalized at Chakan – near the then upcoming industrial belt along the Pune – Nashik highway. News reports suggested that the land at Chakan had an issue for approach of aircraft and airspace conflict with the existing airport which will continue as a fighter base. The site was shifted further away from the city to Rajgurunagar and even before things could proceed, issues linked to land acquisition cropped up. The site was further moved to Khed but that remained a proposed site for a very short time. With the change of government in the state, the location moved to Purandar – from the erstwhile sites which were towards the north of existing airport, the location at Purandar is at the south.
Even the location in Purandar Taluka of Pune district is in the doldrums as there is opposition to land acquisition. With a delay of over two decades, the likely cost of the airport has already shot up multiple times than what it would have been had the airport gone ahead in the early 2000s. Add to that the economic impact of not having a full fledged airport – the city has lost a valuable decade (or two) of growth. Last known, even the tentative site at Purandar is under dispute and land acquisition is yet to start with a proposal to further change the location!
Bengaluru and Hyderabad had their airports operational much earlier! In the last couple of years, the Ministry of Civil Aviation – under the Prime Minister’s dream project – Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) – UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik) has been working on getting defunct airports operational but little has moved when it comes to Pune airport. One of the challenges is that the airport is being pushed by MADC (Maharashtra Airport Development Corporation) which is under the State Government. Without a direct involvement from the central government, an airport of such size is difficult to fructify.
The outdated website of MADC still lists the site as Rajgurunagar and talks of an airport with two runways built for 20 million passengers, double of what the airport caters to right now. To think that the potential is only 20 million is wrong, since the existing airport does not cater to the full potential!
A look at the numbers released by Airports Authority of India (AAI) shows Pune airport – with all its challenges punching much above its weight with domestic traffic nearly equal to that of Ahmedabad – which caters to the capital of a state and has far higher population and catchment area than Pune!
In other parts of the country, there have been projects which have been envisioned and executed in a shorter time frame. Jewar – near NOIDA for example will start operations earlier than Pune. Nobody had ever dreamt of a second airport for New Delhi, when the Pune airport was being envisioned in early 2000s!
Indeed, a new airport requires many things. It also requires a go-ahead from the IAF, to ensure that it does not interfere with the existing approach and take-off path at AFS Lohegaon and that the airspace management is seamless. It also requires clearances from Mumbai – to ensure that flight levels do not interfere with traffic at Mumbai. It also ensures land acquisition, planning, design, a detailed project report and a lot more! But none of this can be a challenge if there is a will to get it done and the last two years – there seems to have been little will to take that path!
As Pune becomes the vaccine manufacturer for the world – the spotlight on the city, the closure of airport for 12 hours daily along with a complete closure in April-May and the fact that vaccine had to be transported by road to Mumbai to take it to some parts of the country and all parts of the world can be the highest motivation to start working and putting the airport plan on a fast track and at the earliest and when it is finally done, let us hope that there already is a public transport link in place otherwise it will become another case of the taxi fare being higher than the air fare as the proposed airport has shifted further and further away from the city over the last two decades!