International status remains an elusive prospect for now

: It is 57 years since a domestic passenger plane flew from Madurai airport, six months since the first international flight was operated from here to Colombo and four months since a foreign carrier — Mihin Lanka — began operations here.

But the airport, which opens at 7 a.m. and closes by 9 p.m. every day, has a long way to go before being declared an international airport.

Informed sources say that operation of flights between here and Colombo and establishment of customs facility for clearing passenger baggage has not elevated the airport even to the level of a customs airport.

Domestic airport

It continues to be classified as a domestic airport in the Airports Authority of India’s (AAI) website last updated on February 21.

Officials say that absence of cargo facilities here might have been the reason for the airport not being declared a customs airport while official recognition as an international airport by the Civil Aviation Ministry requires better internal infrastructure and international connectivity apart from a clearance by the Union Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister.

As per parameters laid down by International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in the country, the runway of an international airport must be at least 9,000 feet long in order to accommodate aircrafts used for international operations. The Madurai airport has only a 7,497 feet long runway. The acquisition of land for extending it to 12,500 feet is yet to be completed.

The ICAO and DGCA also insist on availability of ground lighting facilities and instrument landing system for operation of aircrafts at night.

Closed at night

Though the Madurai airport does have sufficient lighting facilities, the airport remains closed at night for various reasons. At present, 115 employees of Airports Authority of India (AAI) have been deployed to manage it and only a handful at the terminal overnight. The immigration clearance for passengers flying between here and Colombo is done by the State police personnel and not by the Central government staff. An inspector of police, four sub-inspectors and a few head constables drawn from the Tamil Nadu Police Department have been deployed inside the airport for the job.

The airport security is taken care of by 131 Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel stationed at a barrack established close by. Most of them are deputed in the airport complex on two shifts — ‘A’ shift spanning between 6 a.m. and 1 p.m. and ‘B’ shift between 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. The airport is guarded by a thin strength of such personnel during night hours.

Traffic potential in the international sector and demand from airline operators are two other important factors for declaring an airport international. Tour operators and chambers of commerce here feel disheartened to note that the Centre was not ready to permit air travel between Madurai and Singapore despite the interest shown by the latter in the sector.

S. Rethinavelu, senior president, Tamil Nadu Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says: “Connecting Madurai with Singapore will lead to exponential growth of economy in southern Tamil Nadu as Madurai is the gateway to nine southern districts. Passengers flying across the globe could fly from here to Singapore and then catch connecting flights to other destinations.

“The Centre’s refusal to permit air connectivity between Madurai and Singapore is nothing but skullduggery and step motherly treatment being meted out to this region.

The Chief Minister’s announcement on development of Madurai-Tuticorin industrial corridor and a satellite township near the Madurai airport would fructify if only it had better connectivity at least to South Asian and Gulf destinations.”

Lacks cargo facilities

Apart from passenger movement, the Madurai airport also lacks cargo facilities thereby forcing businessmen here to export Madurai Malli (jasmine), medical equipment, readymade garments, handicrafts, fruits, vegetables and granite products through the airports in Chennai, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Tiruchi, says N. Sriram of Balika Tours and Travels here.

“The news of commencing cargo operations is in the air for a long time. Even if it materialises, it is important to establish health, animal and plant quarantine services along with it because perishable goods such as flowers, fruits and vegetables could not be exported without such services. There would be no point in paving way only for export of non-perishable goods,” he adds.

The newly built 1.83 lakh square foot airport terminal building, capable of handling 250 passengers at the arrival end and an equal number in the departure end, badly requires a food court or at least a restaurant.

“Though the Airports Authority of India had called for tenders for operating a restaurant on many occasions, there were no takers for the proposal because the cost quoted was too high.”

“The AAI is expecting somewhere around Rs. 5 lakh a month for the restaurant. Anyone who takes it on rent would have to make business worth Rs.10 lakh a month in order to make a 20 to 30 per cent of profit. It is not possible to make such huge turnover in an airport from where you cannot reach any international destination but for Colombo,” Mr. Sriram adds.

Airport Director K. Sangiah Pandian says that his team was ready to operate night flights or commence cargo operations.

“When we receive a communication from authorities, we shall work out the modalities and implement them,” he asserts. Usha Krishnan, an Indian-born American psychiatrist, who flew here recently, is appreciative of the Madurai airport’s new terminal building. “It looks better than the old terminal building where I flew in some five years ago. But I feel that connectivity is still an issue here.

“For reaching Madurai from New York I had to take a circuitous route: New York-Dubai-Chennai-Madurai. It was tedious. It would have been much better if I had had the option of flying to Madurai straight from Dubai by skipping Chennai. “After all, air travel has become a norm these days and no city can afford to stay out of the international air map for long,” she opines.