Mumbai/Pune: Corporate bosses in Pune, a hub of automobile and information technology (IT) firms in western India, will have to drive or camp in Mumbai for a fortnight in February if they want to travel out of their city by air.
In an unusual move, the Pune airport will be closed for two weeks, starting 12 February.
The decision is raising protests from both airlines and CEOs, such as Rahul Bajaj.
Thirty-five flights, both domestic and international, take off from Pune airport, which is run by the Indian Air Force, every week. The airport is also a base for private jets of several companies based in the city.
The air force, in a letter to the Airports Authority of India, a copy of which was reviewed by Mint, said the airfield will close due to resurfacing and other associated work in progress, including digging work on runway edge and building a rapid taxi way. Even now, there have been continuous disruptions in flights at the airport because of maintenance work.
Capt. Deepak Shastri, director of Pune airport, said the airport has to be closed for technical and safety reasons. “We thought about all aspects before deciding on a complete closure of airport. Keeping it open during renovation was not an option, considering the criticality of the nature of the work. It is better to lose revenue for 15 days rather than having long repercussions,” Shastri said.
Airlines running operations out of Pune include Air India, Jet Airways, Kingfisher Airlines, SpiceJet, IndiGo, JetLite and Simplifly Deccan.
Besides scheduled airlines, companies, such as Kirloskar Group, Bajaj Group, Finolex Group, Bharat Forge Ltd and Force Motors Ltd use Pune airport for private jets.
Representatives of commercial airlines have written to the government to revoke the decision of a fortnight’s closure of the airport.
“This is not a standard practice. There are various instances of airports closing for as much as 6 hours. The complete closure of airport will create a lot of hardships for passengers travelling in and out of Pune. This would also mean a revenue loss to airlines,” said Siddhantha Sharma, executive chairman of SpiceJet Ltd, which connects Pune to three cities—New Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad.
Bajaj, chairman of Bajaj Auto Ltd, too, has written to the civil aviation minister on this. “Even now, the airport is open for only a few hours every day. This is inconveniencing the people of Pune. It is grossly unfair,” said Bajaj.
Cummins Generator Technologies India Ltd managing director Pradeep Bharagava, who travels to Bangalore, New Delhi and Hyderabad at least once a week, said the restricted timings for flight arrivals in the past few months are taking its toll.
“When the airport was operational the whole day, it was a pleasure to take an early morning trip to these places and be back in the evening. But now, there is little choice but go to Mumbai and take a connecting flight. Otherwise, if I fly from Pune I will have to stay back for the night and that means extra hassle of finding a hotel room, not to mention the hotel expenses and the time lost,” he said.
Finolex Cables Ltd’s assistant managing director and chief operating officer P.B. Parasnis, too, said the disruption of flight timings due to the closure of the airport for maintenance over the last few months has led to loss of time and great inconvenience.
Parasnis recollects waking up at 4.30am early this week to catch an 8am flight to Hyderabad from Mumbai as he had to drive to Mumbai, which is 220km from Pune.
“We need that airport going normal as fast as possible. It does not make sense at all to waste so much effort when we have connecting flights out of Pune to most places,” Parasnis said.
The company has a six-seater Beechcraft, used by top management, including chairman P.P. Chabria, for plant visits at Ratnagiri and Goa as road trips are time consuming.
Gurcharan Bhatura, secretary general of Foundation for Aviation and Sustainable Tourism, or FAST, a body that promotes aviation, said airports will have to try to complete repair works during night.
“If Pune airport (authorities) have decided to close it for two weeks, the nature of work would be crucial,” he said. “In certain cases, the airport cannot bifurcate runways into two segments for carrying out runway repairs. Unhealthy runways will result in structure failures and that will damage planes and weaken the insurance claim.”
“The initial proposal was to close down the airport for six months due to the nature of work involved. Later on, it was brought down to two weeks and we have given airlines two months notice,” a senior Pune airport official, who does not wish to be named, said.
The ministry of civil aviation is planning to build a greenfield airport near the existing airport at Pune. “The proposed airport, 20km from the existing one, will take at least six years to become a reality,” the official said.