Mumbai Capital

Runway repair may disrupt flight schedules

On December 30, Airports Authority of India officials intimated airline operators about runway closures at a key metro city airport and tier-two airports for strengthening and re-carpeting work  

If you wanted a cheap flight and an on-time landing to attend a crucial meeting or a wedding in 2016, you might be in for a jolt at many domestic airports, depending on where you’re flying to.

On December 30, Airports Authority of India officials intimated airline operators about runway closures at a key metro city airport and tier-two airports for strengthening and re-carpeting work. Discussions are still on, and airlines await a final confirmation and a NOTAM (notice to airmen) for the same.

Even though it is a periodic exercise done to fix runway wear and tear, airlines and passengers have a lot to worry about in terms of last-minute rescheduling and cancellations. Ticket prices are also likely to go up.

As per the plan, Ahmedabad airport will remain closed from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for 15 months while Indore airport will be shut from 6 a.m. to 12 noon for six months. Starting May, Thiruvananthapuram will have bitumen rolled on to its runway for three months as part of repair work. AAI and airlines are meeting again in a fortnight to discuss runway operations and repair for a few more airports such as Shri Guru Ram Das Jee in Amritsar and Silchar in Assam. A single runway will be in operation at the Netaji Subhash Chandra International Airport, Kolkata.

Passenger worries

Rama Murarka, a frequent Mumbai-Ahmedabad traveller, is dreading the new flight schedules. “I take day trips to Ahmedabad and Baroda regularly on work and I wonder if this is going to be a nightmarish experience of delayed landings and long queues,” she said.

What Ms Murarka has not bargained for is an increase in ticket prices. “With restricted time slots and reduced supply of seats, airfares to Ahmedabad are likely to go up a notch,” said Amber Dubey, partner and head - aerospace and defence at global consultancy KPMG.

Since Ahmedabad is a designated alternate airport to Mumbai, flights to Mumbai during the no-fly period may need to carry extra fuel, restricting the passenger and cargo load and forcing airlines to recover the cost from passengers, he added.

A suburban Mumbai resident, Sumedha Valanju, is apprehensive of trips she makes to smaller cities every week on work. “With technology, can the repair work not be fast tracked? I’ll have to be alert for last-minute hassles thrown at me and why should I be at the receiving end as a taxpayer?” she said.

She also fears that runway closures can spill over to Railways, where getting tickets during the holiday season in busy routes can be challenging.

It’s not clear if travellers will bear the brunt by paying more or whether airlines will share the burden and waive the cancellation fee on a case-to-case basis. At present, airlines charge a small fee upon cancellation and offer a partial refund.

Airlines though are still grappling with rescheduling. Many operators who did not wish to be named said a short notice created impediments. “Airlines will have to make large-scale changes to their schedules and network not only to flights directly impacted by the runway closures but on various other routes as well which will adversely affect each airline’s planned operations,” said a recent letter from the Federation of Indian Airlines to the AAI.

At any rate, airlines need to be given enough notice, said Debashish Saha of the Aeronautical Society of India. “Airlines need to be informed at least a year in advance to avoid losses to airlines, tour operators and passengers,” he added. He cites the example of Dubai Airport, wherein the authorities intimated airlines a year ago and completed work in 80-90 days.

Airlines operate various international flights from Ahmedabad and Thiruvananthapuram and getting slots at overseas destinations in mid-season is almost impossible at times. Additionally, the slot co-ordination process for summer 2016 is almost complete.

Ahmedabad is one of the country’s busiest airports with over 50 lakh passengers a year.

Airport officials are not worried though. “Airlines have various options to accommodate passengers. They can take bigger aircraft and increase capacity in the limited hours of operation,” said AK Sharma, Airport Director, Ahmedabad. The airport has the infrastructure to support airlines for multiple landings and parking space and hence there should be no revenue loss for anyone, he added.

But airlines beg to differ. The country’s largest private airline Jet Airways, which has 25 flights on a daily basis to Ahmedabad, will have to downsize it to 19 in the coming months due to runway repair. At Indore, eight flight schedules will be affected and four at Thiruvananthapuram.

“Runway-restrained hours do have a slight financial impact on us. We need to reschedule, divert and cancel flights sometimes,” said an official of a vertical at Jet Airways, who did not wish to be named.

“Price-sensitive travellers and travel agencies book tickets several months in advance. For sudden cancellations, passengers blame airlines and not airport authorities,” said Mr Dubey.

Critics also blame the slow-moving bureaucracy at the AAI, which is seen as not having a high commercial orientation in addition to poor innovation in managing a busy air space and on-ground traffic.

“While runway quality and safety is paramount, every attempt should be made by the AAI to reduce the planned shutdown by several months. The Ministry of Civil Aviation should mandate all airports to inform airlines and passengers at least six to eight months in advance in case of planned capital repairs,” said Mr Dubey.

As per the plan, Ahmedabad airport will remain closed from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for 15 months

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Printable version | Oct 28, 2020 2:20:10 PM |

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