Ludhiana to Cooch Behar: An Inside Look at India’s Ghost Airports
The largest city north of New Delhi does not have any regular flights to other major Indian cities. Ludhiana remains one of the top contributors to Punjab’s annual income and once boasted of the highest density of Mercedes cars in India.
Yet, India’s Manchester, as BBC puts it, remains deprived of regular air services, despite a functional airport.
From Ludhiana to Malda, Jaisalmer to Cooch Behar, various airports in India — some with latest equipment — lie unused bleeding the exchequers’ money.
In addition to under-utilised airports, the state-run Airport Authority of India also spent Rs 13 crore on ‘non-operational airports’ in the last financial year.
Some of these structures have been kept on standby for emergency scenarios like war or natural disaster.
Ludhiana: India’s Manchester?
Those who can afford to, fly in and out of Ludhiana’s Sahnewal airport using small chartered flights. Others have to travel to Chandigarh or Amritsar.
Air India suspended their once-a-day operation in June last year due to low occupancy. Ludhiana’s residents maintain the services were unreliable. A Facebook page ‘No Airport, No Vote for Ludhiana’ has started garnering a lot of support from city residents ahead of the next state assembly elections scheduled for 2017.
Installation of DVOR, a crucial navigation system that facilitates round-the-clock landing and helps flights operate during bad weather, was held-up earlier due to a clash of ego between Congress and ruling SAD. The DVOR system is likely to encourage private airlines to consider flying to Ludhiana again.
Industry in Ludhiana does need a functional airport, so do the common residents. However, the state government and Union Minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal is adamant that flights should go to Delhi from Ludhiana via Bathinda, which doesn’t make much sense due to increased time for flight.
— Ravneet Singh Bittu, MP, Ludhiana, to TOI
Jaisalmer: On The Global Tourism Map, But Not For Airlines
Two-and-a-half years after the completion of a new Rs 80 crore terminal building, the airport in Jaisalmer, a small and remote desert city in Rajasthan, stands empty.
Reuters reports that not a single passenger has passed through the gates of an airport big enough to handle more than 300,000 travellers a year, with parking bays for three 180-seater narrow-body jets.
Pathankot: Where Three States Meet
Opened in November 2006, airline companies took flight from Pathankot airport by 2011-12 after facing consistent losses. Now, the airport situated near the Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir border hosts an occasional VIP. Punjab’s political leadership has been able to do little to revive the airport.
Kangra airport in Himachal Pradesh, two hours and 80 kilometers away from Pathankot, had 184 flights arriving and departing in June this year and the passenger count increased to 8,372.
Cooch Behar: From Royalty to Oblivion
Operations at the Cooch Behar airport were supposed to have begun by last November. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamta Banerjee had announced the date along with a nearly 50 per cent initial subsidy in order to make it viable for airlines.
Situated close to India’s border with Bangladesh, the Cooch Behar airport’s history has little to inspire any airline operator’s confidence.
On September 5, 2011, services resumed between West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district and state capital Kolkata following a gap of 17 long years. That day, a Dornier-228 aircraft took off from the Cooch Behar airport with 18 passengers and three crew members onboard. Services from the airport did not last long.
An earlier report by The Hindu explained,
The airport first became operational in 1945 when local king Raja Nripendra Narayan operated flights for his personal use. It was thrown open for commercial carriers in 1948 and several small private carriers like Himalayan Aviation, Darbhanga Airways, Kalinga Airways, Airways India, Bharat Airways and Jamir Airways operated flights from there till 1962.
The erstwhile Indian Airlines operated flights from the airport for three years from 1972 and the airstrip was operational till 1990s with Vayudoot connecting the district with the city.
Malda: Now You Have it, Now You Don’t
The Malda airstrip was set up in 1987 for Vayudoot, a low-cost regional airline service initiated by the government in 1981 and wound up in 1997.
Flight operations at Malda had to be terminated within a year as there were not enough passengers to make the service viable.
A few years ago, the airport officials faced a peculiar problem of soil theft. The Telegraph reported the soil is being used to fill up water bodies to support large-scale real estate development in Malda.
Despite existence of white elephant airports the AAI has been scouting for land to build new airports on, sometimes at the risk of angering locals. Two such incidents (Kuppam, Bhogapuram) were reported from Andra Pradesh recently.
In response to a Lok Sabha query on development of no-frills/low-cost airports in various cities Dr Mahesh Sharma, Union Minister for Civil Aviation, said,
Five locations namely, Hubli and Belgaum in Karnataka, Kishangarh in Rajasthan, Jharsuguda in Odisha and Tezu in Arunachal Pradesh were identified for construction of small airports. The estimated project cost for Hubli is Rs 141.44 crore, Belgaum is Rs 141.87 crore, Kishangarh is Rs 160.05 crore, Jharsuguda is Rs 200 crore and Tezu is Rs 96.5 crore.
The Civil Aviation Ministry also declared that just eight out of 109 airports are making profits.
Speaking with Reuters earlier, Sanjeev Kapoor, chief operating officer at SpiceJet, said,
They (the government) need to realise it’s not a case of ‘build the airport and we will come. Every state government wants to have a big airport, but you have to look at it from a national perspective and say where do we need airports, where is the demand and the growth coming from?
Industry expert Kapil Kaul adds,
The AAI (Airports Authority of India) has invested in some airports without any economic logic.
Meanwhile, Ludhiana residents may have some hope with Alliance Air showing some interest and seeking full viability gap funding for operating out of the airport from the government.
Ludhiana, however, is worried their demands will be affected by the Mohali airport which is expected to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 11th September.
Last month, Prime Minister Modi pledged Rs 2,700 crores for four new airports in Bihar, which holds elections this year.
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