Clear skies ahead

Print edition : April 23, 2010

The arrival hall at the Chennai International Airport. The AAI has taken up modernisation of airport infrastructure on a large scale.-K. PICHUMANI

The Chairman of the Airports Authority of India (AAI), Vijai Prakash Agrawal, is a visionary and a perfectionist. He has an eye for detail and does not allow complacency to creep into the system. With over three decades of experience, he has a vision and commitment to create world-class infrastructure for the airports in the country.

As Director of the Srinagar airport, he earned the distinction of relocating operations to the Avantipur airfield in a record time of one week as the Srinagar airport runway had to be re-carpeted. The move entailed rigging up all facilities from scratch at Avantipur.

He is a member of the world governing body of the Airports Council International and is also on the Board of ACI Asia-Pacific.

Agrawal took over as the AAI Chairman on January 1, 2009. His priority and efforts have been to provide a congenial working environment, and thereby a high-quality work ethos. An optimum induction of state-ofthe-art technology and professional management to ensure safety and comfort of passengers are also his areas of focus.

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

What, in your assessment, is the status of infrastructure at our airports?

We at the Airports Authority of India, having witnessed the recent phenomenal growth in the aviation sector, thought it prudent to upgrade and modernise infrastructure so as to make air travel more comfortable and enjoyable. Accordingly, we ventured upon modernisation of airport infrastructure on a large scale. The projects we undertook have either been completed successfully or are near completion.

Of the 35 non-metro works, 10 at Amritsar, Aurangabad, Dehra Dun, Jaipur, Lucknow, Mangalore, Nagpur, Tiruchi, Udaipur and Visakhapatnam airports have been completed. Development work has been completed at Dibrugarh, Srinagar, Kozhikode, Kullu, Surat, Hubli, Belgaum, Cooch Behar, Mysore, Akola, Gondia and Pant Nagar airports. However, modernisation and upgradation of infrastructure is a continuous process and demands constant monitoring.

V.P. Agrawal, Chairman, AAI: The need to give due cognisance to air safety is important.-S. SIVA SARAVANAN

Airport infrastructure would include air traffic management/communications, navigation, surveillance, that is, radars and navigational/landing aids; passenger/cargo terminals, and air-side and city-side facilities.

With the phenomenal growth in air traffic, the need to give due cognisance to air safety is important. It would be mandatory for us to ensure the integration of the air traffic service (ATS) automation systems in Chennai and Kolkata with the tower automation systems at the other major airports and to have radar networking for efficient management of air traffic flow to achieve seamless surveillance coverage of air space. To contribute meaningfully to the growth of aviation and its sustainability in our region, we are developing fuel-efficient and seamless air routes using satellite-based technology. We are on course to meet the deadline set by the ICAO [International Civil Aviation Organisation]. Commensurate landing aids are being provided at the airports.

What has been the AAIs experience with the recent global economic meltdown?

We were in the middle of executing our plans when the financial crisis occurred. World over, air traffic growth and revenue receipts thereof were affected adversely. The AAI faced a depletion in revenue, and organising funds for the smooth execution of projects became a challenge. The AAI took recourse to cost-cutting and reviewed its projects while ensuring that quality and standards were not compromised. Like others, we too were forced to look for funds from various sources.

Therefore, a consensual decision was taken that the only way to steer successfully through the turbulent times was to accept it as an exciting/challenging phase & face it up front. It also offered us an opportunity to identify pitfalls and grey areas and work to eliminate them.

We took the optimistic view that the slowdown was a temporary phenomenon and that the future of the aviation industry in emerging markets such as ours could not get any worse.

The AAIs think tank explored various avenues for revenue generation. Judging from the anticipated growth in the civil aviation sector globally, the Indian aviation sector is likely to see clear skies in the coming years. The development/upgradation projects under way and those on the anvil will continue and will prove to be handy when the economy revives and air traffic gets into ascending mode.

Are there plans to connect more cities by air? How is the AAI preparing to meet the challenge of the Commonwealth Games?

Boarding bridges at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Shamshabad near Hyderabad.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Bringing more cities on the air map of the country depends largely on demand. Airlines have to carry out feasibility studies and then put demands on us; accordingly, we plan and provide the required infrastructure for their operations. As of now, we have envisaged to bring Amravati, Bikaner, Jalgaon, Kishangarh and Latur on the air map of India.

As for the second part of your question, the AAI is upgrading infrastructure at most airports by building world-class steel and glass structures with modern passenger facilities and amenities of international standards such as passenger boarding bridges with visual docking system, escalators and in-line baggage conveyor system. The airport terminal building will be column-free, providing more space for passengers. Constant and close monitoring of airports and also close liaison with agencies responsible for maintaining law and order will be organised so that the highest level of security is provided for air travellers.

What is the status of airports in the north-eastern region (NER)? How do you see the development of airports in this region vis-a-vis their profitability and the AAIs financial health?

I was earlier Regional Executive Director of the NER and thereafter Member (Planning) at our corporate office when the AAI embarked upon its modernisation plans. Coincidently, I started my career in the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and my first posting was in the north-east. So I know the NER well.

There are 22 airports in the NER. In order to improve connectivity to that region, the AAI plans to upgrade facilities there. The 11th Five-Year Plan has set aside Rs.307 crore for the purpose. The works include the construction of three greenfield airports, a new terminal building at Dibrugarh, and the extension/strengthening of the runway at the Silchar, Dibrugarh and Guwahati airports. As regards the non-operational airports in the NER, there is no scope for extension of their runways owing to the terrain and topography of the area. The development work at such airports can only be planned after airlines add smaller aircraft with a capacity of about 20 passengers to their fleet and give a firm commitment on operations through these airports in fair-weather conditions.

The airports in the NER are not economically viable, as only a few flights operate from most of them. In my opinion, this area is ideally suited for the hub-and-spoke concept, where smaller aircraft are deployed for better connectivity.

As for the second part of your question, I suppose it would not be right to look at this sector through the prism of profit and loss. It is the social responsibility of the government to ensure development and proper connectivity of the whole country. The AAI, being an extended arm of the government, is morally and socially bound to do its bit. The response of the seven north-eastern State governments has been positive, and all possible support will be extended for the development of airports in these States. In the committee meeting between the Ministries of Civil Aviation and Home Affairs, it was agreed that the North East Council (NEC) would support the AAI by providing 60 per cent of the cost to be incurred in the development/improvement of airport facilities; the balance would be provided by the Central government.

Have you drawn a road map for the coming year?

Yes, we have. The most important thing is to evolve a system for improving funds flow, as it affects our plan seriously. Moreover, we dont get any support from the government in the form of grants, except those meant for disturbed areas and certain areas in the north-eastern region.

There is an urgent need to explore new areas of revenue generation.

The other ambitious plan is to establish civil-military cooperation. Airspace is a national asset and is finite. We plan to have the AAI and the military under a single roof so as to coordinate air space management and develop a flow management system. Modalities for this have to be worked out, and appropriate strategies have to be evolved thereafter. Such cooperation will enable civil aircraft to transit through military air space, thus making routes shorter. This will mean less time in the air and optimum utilisation of resources, including fuel.

In due course, we will have to revive airports that are currently non-operational, and also develop new airports where existing ones have got saturated and have no scope for further expansion.

Has any thought gone into improving connectivity to airports?

In the recent past, the importance of having good connectivity to airports has dawned on all concerned. Concerted efforts are on by airport operators and local civic body authorities. The Central government has identified 10 airports Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jaipur, Kochi, Coimbatore and Ahmedabad for better connectivity, as a pilot project. In Hyderabad and Bangalore, access roads are nearing completion. They also have on the anvil a dedicated metro link, like the one in Delhi. In Bangalore, many underpasses have been constructed and roads have been widened. I am told that it takes only 45 minutes now to reach the airport, as against one-and-a-half to two hours earlier.

In Kolkata and Chennai, we are coordinating with the State governments to provide better connectivity. In Chennai, a metro rail link to the airport is planned. This will be in tune with the massive expansion programme under way at the Chennai airport, where a new domestic terminal will be ready by December. The Kolkata project will also be over by December.

Also, with regard to the Commonwealth Games, we are coordinating with the authorities concerned in order to ensure better connectivity in terms of road/rail (metro) transport infrastructure.

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