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Chandigarh airport: All set to take off

Sofi Ahsan
Passengers coming out from the Chandigarh International Airport (Express photo by Jasbir Malhi)

Come April 10, and the Chandigarh International Airport will finally be ready for 24×7 operations, nearly three and a half years after its new terminal was thrown open for air traffic. The airport has been mired in controversies right from September 2015, when its terminal was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Be it over its name or lack of infrastructure commensurate with its international tag, it has always remained in the spotlight.

However, it is a Public Interest Litigation, almost as old as the new terminal, pending before the Punjab and Haryana High Court, that has finally succeeded in giving wings to the airport.

It began with a PIL

It was in December 2015 that the Mohali Industries Association approached the High Court complaining that while Rs 1400 crore had been spent on the airport, there were no 24×7 operations, the runway was not ready for wide-bodied aircraft required for long-haul flights to destinations overseas, and the lighting system was entry level that led to flight cancellations at the mere hint of fog.

The association pleaded for a longer runway for wide-bodied aircraft and CAT IIIB instrument landing system (ILS) to allow landing even at a visibility of 50 metres to avoid any cancellations during foggy weather. It was argued that the lack of facilities meant the airport would never live up to its international status.

Today, after dozens of court hearings; passing of judicial strictures, official meetings and intervention at highest levels, the airport is set to have 24×7 watch hours with CAT II ILS lighting system also ready to allow flights to land even with a visibility of 350 metres. The CAT IIIB ILS is also in the pipeline. Though the usable runway length continues to remain at 9500 feet, almost the same as 2015, but it officially qualifies for 4E operations (wide-bodied aircraft) and is set to increase to 12400 feet by September 30. And the lights are being made available on the entire 12400 feet of runway.

Long wait to go international

Though Dubai and Sharjah are the only two international cities to which the airport has a direct access at present, the city will see better connectivity to international flights with the extension of the watch hours to 24 hours from the existing 07:00 am-to-05:45 pm, Monday to Saturday schedule. The airlines have already shown interest in flying in till midnight and fly out from wee hours in the morning though we may not see late-night flights soon or at least for two months. Insiders say addition to international carriers flying here is also only a matter of time given the huge volume of outward-bound passengers from the region.

Earlier, international airlines did not take part in a meeting held with major airlines in December 2018, with some trotting out the excuse of Christmas holidays. But Jet Airways made it clear that they will consider flying international only after the installation of CAT III ILS. Air India said they have expansion plans for only domestic routes. Vistara does not have the permission to operate on international sectors. Go Air was the only airlines to say that they plan to start operations between Chandigarh and Middle East but no specifics were provided. Indigo also said they have no plans for international flights.

Senior Advocate Manmohan Lal Sarin is one of the few people who has been associated with the case since the beginning. Sarin was initially representing the Indigo airline in the PIL but when the operator started its Dubai flight in 2016 and decided to withdraw from the case, the Court instantly requested him to continue assistance as amicus. Since then, he has not only been the amicus curiae in the case but outside courtroom also, he has overseen the negotiations between stakeholders on behalf of the court.

Needed a govt push

"The international airlines did not participate in the December meeting because they said they will come to a meeting only when all the infrastructure is in place and commissioned. They were not ready to go by the undertaking given before the court, and they have been proven right earlier. They will come but normally international airlines start planning a new route a year or 18 months in advance. When we start in April, it is likely they will start next year," Sarin told Chandigarh Newsline, adding the CAT III ILS will not be an impediment for them as it is only required for 10 or 12 days in a year between December and February.

With infrastructure almost in place, Sarin added, the decision to increase the flights on international routes is now up to the airlines. "The major work has been done but now it depends on all the parties concerned to put their heads together. Chandigarh and Delhi are so close; so much traffic moves from here to there; the traffic on the national highway would decline considerably when we start direct flights from here. It may not happen immediately but the international airlines can start slowly. We can host any type of aircraft now, the government also needs to come into play and give the airlines some incentive to come here," he added.

The HC roadmap

The journey has not been easy. Indigo and Air India were the first Indian airlines to fly international from the airport. While the Indigo's plan to fly to Dubai remained pending for months in 2016 for want of customs approval for transportation of bonded liquor from Delhi to Chandigarh, Air India made history on September 15 in 2016 when it flew to Sharjah directly from the airport. Indigo soon started its direct flight to Dubai on September 26.Even before them, international airlines like BH Air and FlyDubai had shown interest in flying directly from Chandigarh but they are yet to start their operations here.

"The major impediment in the case and for the airport has been lack of coordination and cooperation between various government ministries and agencies. Various works have been completed because of the supervision of the High Court. It would have taken much much longer in absence of judicial intervention," said an advocate, who wished not be named, adding, "it has also been known since the beginning that there are players in Delhi who do not want the airport to have international flights."

Punjab State is on record to have told the court in 2016 that the Centre is "making the international airport at Chandigarh in-operational at the behest of other interested parties". Another lawyer said the same seems to be true as "many undertakings given previously by the authorities have turned out to be wrong. Like they said that we will make a CAT III compliant parallel taxi track (PTT) but then they backed out saying no, we will have the CAT III on existing runway. The PTT then became a Southern Taxi Track and they said it will not be linked at both ends. Such changes in policy, decisions…that is what led to the unnecessary delay".

Saron structures

In August 2018, just few days before his retirement, Justice S S Saron wrote a strong order after the court was told that the idea of PTT or a full-fledged parallel runway has been abandoned by the Ministry of Defence due to re-carpeting of the old runway. The PTT had been earlier promised by the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in his letter to the previous Punjab government to avoid closure of the old runway, which required repair as its pavement classification number (PCN) had reduced to 14 due to wear and tear and was to be raised to 75. A stretch of 166.17 acres was also identified for the purpose of PTT by Punjab and Chandigarh.

"On the one hand, a huge modern building has been constructed and there are plans for expansion of the building. On the other hand, the basic facility for the airport i.e. full fledged runway is not being provided," wrote the pision bench headed by Justice Saron, adding this is "not only unfortunate but also disheartening for the region".

Justice Saron was largely instrumental in ensuring that the airport actually lived up to its international tag and would not hesitate in pulling up the authorities with severest-possible remarks to ensure compliance. During one such hearing, the judge also asked the CBI Counsel to remain present on the next date to work out any scope of inquiry into the condition of airport and runway. The runway recarpeting and construction finally began in the last months of 2017 and the High Court continued to monitor the progress with Justice Ajay Kumar Mittal along with the amicus also making a ground visit to the airport.

The Court in February 2018 was also told that the existing runway on one side will be made CAT IIIB compliant with AAI agreeing to fund it instead of Defence Ministry. Work on Southern Taxi Track – on a much lesser land than what was to be used for the PTT – is also to begin soon. The land is already available with the Air Force and Chandigarh International Airport Limited.

Security checking at International Airport (Express Photo)

CJ gets both states on board

In the hearing before the pision bench of Chief Justice Krishna Murari and Justice Arun Palli on March 19, the Court was informed that the decision to install CAT III-B ILS, which will allow landing even with a visibility of 50 metre, is now pending with the Board of Airport Authority of India after TATA SED, which was engaged to install the CAT II ILS lights on '29' side of the runway, agreed to work on the price suggested earlier by the government. Again, it was a nudge from the High Court which made the company scale down its demand of Rs 61.7 crore for the work to the price estimated by the Airport Authority of India.

With the AAI about to give its approval for the CAT IIIB ILS, the next major work at the airport will be of the the taxi track. According to an official document, "in the absence of Southern Taxi Track, the air movement traffic density cannot be improved from present day dynamics since aircraft still need to back track both for take -off and on landing. Presently, not more than 12 movements can be accommodated per hour."

"The runway edge lights are currently available for the airport to remain functional 24×7. The CAT II ILS system will be available by April 10 but the testing procedure will take at least two months. There is sufficient lighting available at present so there is no requirement of the CAT II as of now. If the AAI moves as per plan, the CAT IIIB ILS will also be available by the year end but then it would again take few months for testing and operationalisation. But, yes, we are ready for any aircraft, including 4E, to land. The project of re-carpeting and now lighting was completed within a year and it is a major achievement," said a senior IAF officer, who has been associated with the case.

It is not only major works which have been monitored by the High Court, even minor facilities like Wifi, installation of ATMs, kiosks and duty-free shops were also started only due to the court intervention.

Following certain strictures by the chief justice in the case recently, Punjab and Haryana-both have 24.5 percent stake in the airport-have also shown their willingness to pay for any projects at the airport.

It won't be wrong to conclude that with the High Court keeping an eagle eye on the airport, it won't be long before it soars to new destinations across the world.