Rebuilding an abandoned airstrip built during World War II could be the last resort to decongest Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, which, despite modernization, is unlikely to accommodate the projected five-year traffic growth.
The civil aviation ministry has asked the Airports Authority of India (AAI) to conduct a feasibility study on a redundant airstrip in the Nevali village of Thane district, about 35km from the existing Mumbai airport and the same distance from a proposed airport site at Navi Mumbai, which could be converted into a functional general aviation airport within a year.
The smaller Thane airport could handle smaller aircraft such as turboprops, helicopters, Bombardier CRJs and Embraer aircraft, it is proposed.
“It’s a worthwhile proposition,” said Ashok Chawla, secretary, civil aviation ministry. “It could take the smaller aircraft movements away from the Mumbai airport till 2011-13.”
Mumbai Mobbed (Graphic)
AAI is likely to submit an estimate of the capital requirements for the project within this month. Earlier this year, the civil aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation or DGCA, placed a ban on additional flights at Mumbai and Delhi airports, asked airport operators to add more taxiways and even toyed with the idea of increasing airport charges to regulate peak hour flights.
Mumbai handled over 607 daily aircraft movements in the month of June, of which about 76 are accounted by turboprop, small passenger and corporate jets, which could potentially be shifted to the Thane airport to make way for bigger aircraft, such as the Airbus A320s, which handle up to three times the passengers on smaller planes.
According to estimates from the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, passenger traffic in Mumbai will rise to 50 million by 2012, which is more than double the number it handles currently. The expanded Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport will by then be the gateway for 40 million passengers annually—the maximum it can handle even after the ongoing expansion.
About 10 million will be handled by the Navi Mumbai International Airport, a proposal for which was cleared by the Union cabinet last month and one that civil aviation minister Praful Patel expects to be functional by 2011. The Thane airstrip, with 1,600 acres of land around it, was constructed by the British and now belongs to the ministry of defence, whose plans of developing a defence academy in the area have so far not materialized.
Interestingly, though the airstrip is one of the oldest in the country, it is not mentioned in AAI’s books. AAI is mandated to maintain a record of all civilian, state-owned and defence airstrips in the country.
Developing the Thane airstrip will need an okay from the developers of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport—banded under the Mumbai International Airport Ltd or MIAL, a consortium of private developers led by GVK Infrastructure Ltd—who have a first right of refusal to build an airport coming within an aerial radius of 150km of the existing airport.
Chawla said AAI plans to develop the airstrip only after discussions with MIAL.
“They (MIAL) have been actually asking to shift general aviation (from Mumbai airport) to Juhu (airport). So that is not likely to be a major issue,” he said.
A MIAL spokesperson said the airport management was in favour of what he called “out-of-the-box solutions”, adding that shifting smaller aircraft to another airport will also free parking bays at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport which can then be used by larger aircraft.
The airport has 88 night parking bays for planes, of which 24 are used by smaller aircraft. “Small aircraft tend to bog down traffic and the time they take in terms of navigation and runway use reduces the speed.
It’s like putting a three-wheeler on a highspeed highway,” said Manish Kalghatgi of MIAL. The financial viability of the investment at the Thane airport may, however, not be favourable, said a senior AAI official, who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak with the media.
For, most smaller aircraft including turboprops and helicopters, which could also include VIP aircraft, are exempt from paying landing and navigation charges that typically contribute more than 60% of an airport’s revenue in India.