Aviation ministry approves plan for Kannur international airport

Aviation ministry approves plan for Kannur international airport

New Delhi: The civil aviation ministry has approved a decade-old proposal for developing an international airport in Kannur in north Kerala, ahead of a potential clearance by the Union cabinet in a month. The ministry also plans to clear a new site for Pune’s first dedicated civilian airport by the end of the year.

Once finally cleared, the airport at Kannur, which for years has faced stiff opposition from airport regulator Airports Authority of India (AAI) and other interests, will be Kerala’s fourth international airport.

The Leela Group, which has interests in hotels, signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Kerala government to develop the Kannur airport four years ago under then chief minister A.K. Anthony, who is now the Union defence minister.

On Thursday, the group said it was still in the race to develop the project, which was even more viable now based on the new traffic projections.

“We have had discussions with Changi (Singapore’s Changi Airports International), who are willing to tie up with us after the government clears it. We are hoping (now) that it will be propelled forward," said Vivek Nair, managing director of The Leela Group, which is investing Rs2,500 crore in hotels in the next three years.

The government has not decided what model—state-owned, a concession contract to a private bidder or a private-owned airport—the Kannur airport will operate on, said a senior civil aviation official, who did not wish to be named. The state government had earlier planned to develop Kannur on the lines of the country’s first private airport at Kochi, unlike other new airports which are constructed on a build-operate-transfer basis.

Leela’s Nair said the company would even bid for the project if the airport is awarded by way of a tender process instead of the agreed MoU. “We have an open mind on it," said Nair, adding the increased traffic from non-resident Indians to the Gulf from north Kerala was enough to sustain its Rs1,000 crore costs.

“Kerala is promoting the Bekal beach zone (close to Kannur), which has seven international class resorts being set up, and charter flights directly from Europe can come to these properties similar to what they do in Goa. Once there is an airport, we can also look at developing a resort close by," he added.

Leela already operates the Kovalam Beach Resort outside the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram.

AAI is opposing setting up of the airport at Kannur as it will drive away traffic from nearby airports, some of which are running up losses. Of the 21 airports it runs in the southern region, just six were profitable in 2005-06, the latest year for which data is available. Two other airports at Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram made small profits of Rs14.04 crore and Rs2.65 crore, respectively, in the same year, and could go into losses if the new airport comes up.

“We are planning to set up a committee to take up the issue (with the government)," a senior AAI official familiar with the process said.

Elsewhere in the country, AAI is not opposed to connecting Pune, which has an Indian Air Force-owned airport now, with the rest of the country through a new airport. The Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation has confirmed the exact location of the project at Chakan, 40km away from the city on the Pune-Nashik highway. The technical feasibility of the airport is currently being studied.

The air force recently asked the civil aviation ministry to limit the number of domestic flights because its Lohegaon airport at Pune simply can’t handle any more takeoffs and landings since it is shared with defence aircraft. Starting this month, for example, civilian flights have been restricted for eight hours a day. This restriction will remain until mid-2008 as the airport runway is being reinforced.

“We had to turn down 25 daily flights request (this season) because there was no way to accommodate them," said a civil aviation official familiar with the matter. Some 34 daily flights currently operate from the city, but traffic at the airport has been growing as Pune attracts more information technology firms.

The Pune airport traditionally has been a hub for travelling students; the city and surrounding areas are home to several colleges and technical educational institutes.