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Tamil Nadu airport expansions: in search of a second wind

Facilities across the State are in dire need of land expansion and augmentation of infrastructure. Crowding and serpentine queues can only be eliminated if the plans look far ahead into the future and factor in the rapid growth in traffic that will take place in the sector, experts say

In less than a decade, India will replace the United Kingdom as the third largest aviation market transporting 278 million passengers every year, the International Air Transport Association says. Time and again, this body has reiterated the need for the intelligent expansion of airports, as in the sterling case of Singapore’s Changi facility.

Closer home, the State government has chalked out expansion plans for various cities, including Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai and Tiruchi. Of these, Chennai airport’s Phase I modernisation plan seems like a complete letdown with a host of infrastructure issues.

Four years after the completion of Phase I, the terminals are bursting at the seams with about 30,000 passengers travelling every day. The situation is especially bad during early mornings and late nights with the terminal choked with serpentine queues. Though services have marginally improved, there is quite a long way to go, passengers say. This has highlighted the need for the immediate implementation of Phase II after which as many as 30 million passengers can use the facilities.

Officials say that though the final nod for the project is yet to arrive from the Airports Authority of India (AAI), they will begin the safety inspection for the project soon. The phase II project has been planned in such a way as to give the terminals an integrated look. “It may take four years to complete and we will carry out this construction in two phases. We have carefully planned the work to ensure passengers don’t face any inconvenience,” an official says. The first phase will be over by January 2020 and the second by July 2021 and together, it will be open for operations by September 2021.

With Tanjore paintings, murals and statues, the airport’s facade will significantly change for the better, officials say. But these are just the aesthetics. Functional conveniences are miles away.

“We want to make sure there are no infrastructural issues, such as the breaking of glass panels or the collapse of false ceilings. We will ensure the toilets can be easily maintained,” another official says.

But with the promised deadline itself four years away, passengers have to grapple with the existing arrangements for quite sometime.

Meanwhile, there is no clarity on the future of the proposed greenfield airport for the city. The site has not been finalised yet. AAI officials say the project has to begin at the earliest, failing which passengers will suffer. “How long will the Phase II modernisation be enough? After a few years, the terminal will get saturated again. Finalising the land, acquiring it and getting the necessary permissions will take about 5-6 years. Unless the work starts now, the going will be tough,” an official says.

The proposal for the greenfield airport also envisions splitting domestic and international operations with the new airport to take care of the latter. But this may bring fresh challenges. “If the terminals are around 40 km from each other, the State may have to build an expressway or a Metro Rail corridor to connect them. Otherwise, passengers might suffer,” he adds.

Competitive growth

Despite a competitive growth in traffic, airports in cities such as Madurai, Tiruchi and Coimbatore still await expansion.

Tiruchi, the largest airport after Chennai (in handling overseas passengers and flight movements in the State), with over 100 overseas flight operations every week to six foreign destinations, is on a major expansion mode as the decks have been cleared for the acquisition of land for the extension of the runway and funds sanctioned for the construction of a new international terminal. The new passenger terminal building would be five times the size of the existing one and will come up on 67,500 square metres with a basement to accommodate utilities.

Preliminary works connected with runway expansion and the construction of a two-level passenger terminal building adjoining the existing one have commenced.

After getting administrative sanction from the State government for the acquisition of over 300 acres of land in the airport’s vicinity, the district administration issued a notification and is receiving objections from the private land owners.

Simultaneously, the transfer of over 25 acres of government land to the AAI is also on, Tiruchi District Collector K. Rajamani says.

The district administration will send a proposal to the State government regarding the fixation of value for the land to be acquired by October-end or November, Mr. Rajamani says, adding that the land required for runway expansion will be handed over to the AAI within the specified time.

After several years of delay, the stage is now set for the expansion of the runway from the existing 8,000 feet to 12,500 feet, which is required to handle wide-bodied aircraft. Meanwhile, AAI has engaged a French consultant to prepare the designs and plan for the swanky structure with a multi-level car parking facility.

The Project Management Consultant engaged by the AAI has begun the spade work by conducting soil investigation — a prerequisite ahead of construction — at the proposed site, says Tiruchi airport director K. Gunasekaran.

The consultant will provide the designs of the proposed structure to the AAI for final approval. Mr. Gunasekaran says the physical work for the mega project will commence next year. The entire project is expected to be completed in three years.

Cramped facilities

Madurai airport, which currently sees 20 landings a day, has been a major link to various parts of the country, and even the world, especially after the introduction of low-cost airlines in the mid-2000s. It got its steel-and-glass 17,500 sq. ft. integrated terminal building in 2010. But after flights to Dubai, Singapore and Colombo began operating, there has been a renewed need for expansion.

The arrival and departure halls are cramped. “The halls were designed to handle 250 passengers each. But, it is very congested now. We have proposed to expand the terminal building to accommodate more passengers,” airport director, V.V. Rao, says. That apart, nearly 615 acres of land has to be acquired for the proposed extension of the runway from 7,500 feet to 12,500 feet. Though the Tamil Nadu Government notified the land acquisition in 2008, the process is far from over.

“At present, bigger aircraft are landing with load restrictions due to a shorter runway. In the initial phase, we propose to extend the runway to 11,000 feet whereby wide-bodied aircraft can land,” he adds.

Snail’s pace

The development of Coimbatore International Airport that serves seven districts in the Kongu region and parts of Kerala has been proceeding at a snail's pace with a delay of more than 10 years in land acquisition for expansion works.

According to airport director R. Mahalingam, a budget allocation of ₹1,000 crore for the expansion of the terminal building and ₹500 crore for developmental activities in the operation areas, such as the runway, remain unused due to the delay. The plan is to acquire 627.89 acres of land.

The airport also does not meet the Directorate General of Civil Aviation’s (DGCA) criteria for a basic strip — 150 metres on either side of the runway from the centre line. This is a major safety requirement. For over 10 years, the DGCA has been been extending the licence of the airport every two years though the width of the basic strip remains unchanged. The present runway of 10,000 feet currently has only 50% of the basic strip. Due to this, the runway lacks the space to accommodate bigger aircraft. Acquisition of around 50 acres is required to widen bathe sic strip. Despite having registered an increase of more than 20% in passenger traffic and cargo movement in the last financial year, the airport is losing a significant share of passenger and cargo traffic due to its inability to host more international flights, especially to the Middle East and European countries.

High hopes

Investors are looking forward with huge hopes to the expansion of the Thoothukudi airport, which only caters to passengers bound for Chennai as of now. Only smaller ATR model aircraft are operational from this airport.

The district administration has handed over 366.24 acres of patta land acquired as per the Land Acquisition Act to the AAI. A total of 600.93 acres has been identified for the expansion of the Vagaikulam airport from adjoining villages, including Kumaragiri, Kattalangulam, Mudivaithanendal and Servaikaranmadam.

The required acreage for the airport expansion is planned to be acquired in 13 blocks in the district. Of these, land acquisition is over in eight blocks of which the interim award has been extended to land owners in six blocks, sources say.

On a priority basis, 72 more acres need to be acquired and handed over to the AAI soon to create extend the runway from 4,429 feet to 6,561 feet so as to accommodate bigger aircraft. Apart from Spicejet that connects Thoothukudi and Chennai daily, two more airlines have now expressed an interest in operating flights. Hence, a night navigation facility has to be established at the earliest.

Since Thoothukudi has a seaport, there is potential for promoting air shipping, R. Edwin Samuel, vice-president, ICCI, Thoothukudi, says. Thoothukudi airport also needs infrastructure development on par with the seaport here. With a good trade link between Thoothukudi and Colombo in Sri Lanka, air cargo operations are also viable.

J. Jeyasingh Thiyagaraj Natterjee, Thoothukudi MP, says that infrastructure for night landing of flights is ready but approval to operate the facility is awaited. State government authorities need to expedite the land acquisition process and hand over the entire portion of land required for expansion to the AAI.

He says a few high-rise structures in the 10-mile radius of the approach funnel of this airport are yet to be included in the aerodrome obstruction chart.

Red lamps atop such high-rise structures should be installed for air navigation at night. Mr. Natterjee says he has raised this issue in Parliament.

Sources say the 1,086 feet high Vallanadu Hills might cause some obstruction to navigation. The matter has been taken up with the Department of Forests.

(With inputs from S. Sundar in Madurai, R. Rajaram in Tiruchi, J. Praveen Paul Joseph in Thoothukudi and Wilson Thomas in Coimbatore)


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