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Accident puts spotlight on delay in runway expansion

Activists contend that Friday’s accident could have been averted if the runway had been expanded.

The narrow escape that passengers and crew of the Air India Express flight had at the Tiruchi international airport early on Friday has brought into focus the long-pending land acquisition for expanding the runway and its proximity to the Tiruchi-Pudukottai Highway as well.

“It would have been a catastrophe if only the aircraft had hit a vehicle on the highway (which runs along the airport perimeter wall),” a senior official of the airport conceded.

The highway is so close to the runway that it was considered a security and safety threat. Some years ago a proposal to provide a diversion to the road was mooted. However, it failed to take off.

While airport officials maintain that the aircraft had not overshot the runway, activists contend that the accident could have been averted if only the runway had been expanded as planned by the Airports Authority of India (AAI).

“A major accident has been averted by a whisker. The runway expansion plan is pending for almost a decade for want of land. The acquisition process is said to have been expedited in recent months; it should be completed quickly,” said M.Sekaran, consumer activist and president of the Air, Rail and Road Travellers Federation.

Expansion in phases

After the first phase of expansion of the airport runway over a decade back from 6,000 to about 8,000 feet, the AAI had drawn up plans to expand it to a length of 12,000 feet in phases to facilitate operation of bigger and wide-bodied aircraft.

But in 2008, the AAI was asked to rework its proposal by reducing the land acquisition on the western (city) side of the airport in view of the stiff opposition from residents in several colonies that have sprouted opposite the airport.

Expansion of the runway on the city side would have entailed diversion of the highway.

Subsequently, the AAI sought about 683.32 acres, including about 337.70 acres of defence land. The State government last year accorded administrative sanction for acquiring about 345.62 acres, including wetlands, located mostly on the rear side of the airport.

But the land acquisition is yet to be completed. A section of the residents land owners opposed acquisition of their properties, but the district authorities say that they have agreed to accept alternative residential sites.

Chairman of the Airports Authority of India P.Kumar, MP, after an inspection of the accident spot, said that the process of land acquisition was apace and the issue would be discussed at the Airport Advisory Committee meeting on October 27.

Tiruchi Collector K.Rajamani said acquisition was progressing swiftly and the process of fixing the value of a set of private lands was under way.

Twenty seven persons approached the court against the acquisition of land in three blocks and the final orders cannot be passed in respect of these lands. The process of alienation of government land was also under progress. Steps to acquire Defence land is under way separately, he added.

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