After an inexplicable delay in their formal inauguration, Kolkata and Chennai finally have modern airport terminals. While President Pranab Mukherjee opened the new terminals in Kolkata nearly a fortnight ago, Vice President Hamid Ansari did the honours in Chennai on January 31. Unfortunately, both these modernised airports will not be opened to traffic immediately. It will take another month in Chennai and perhaps two in Kolkata. There was no controversy in West Bengal, as the newly relaid airport has been named after Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. But Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa boycotted the opening function because the Centre did not accept her recommendation to name the new terminal after her mentor, the former Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran. But these two new facilities have a lot in common and complete the process of upgrading and modernising the airports in the four major metropolitan cities of the country. Delhi and Mumbai’s new terminals were launched on a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model, while Kolkata and Chennai were initiated by the State-owned Airports Authority of India. Additionally, Kolkata also went in for a joint venture with a Thailand based company.
The fate of the Kolkata and Chennai projects raises some basic questions. Both of them were taken up for modernisation and redevelopment as far back as 2008 but five years later — despite the inauguration — neither is operational. Some more support facilities have to come up in each of these complexes that have been built at a cost of about Rs. 2,400 crore each. What accounts for this delay? And why cannot the AAI get them ready when launched? The other issue relates to the ambience, the facilities, and the maintenance services. Will AAI maintain and operate these airports or privatise basic services? How will they compare with the fully privatised greenfield airports at Hyderabad and Bangalore, for instance? Kolkata is expected to be India’s gateway to the East, and Chennai the country’s door for and to Southeast Asia. Perhaps Chennai has greater potential than Kolkata in the immediate future. The Civil Aviation Ministry and the Tamil Nadu government also have to take a call on the need for developing a greenfield airport at Sriperumbudur. The aviation secretary has already asked the State administration to send in a formal proposal to pursue this project for which there is an “in principle” acceptance. Given the fact that it takes five to six years to commission a new airport, and the current 10 per cent annual growth in traffic, an early decision on this becomes imperative.