Readying the ground to soar the skies

The question of whether Chennai’s airport infrastructure is sufficient for its needs, today, and tomorrow, has been discussed for decades here. Expansion and modernisation of the current facilities are ongoing, while the proposal to establish a second airport for the city is still hanging fire. With all indications showing that footfalls at the airport will only burgeon exponentially, experts call for swift action to address the entire range of issues relevant to the airport.

Updated - July 10, 2022 02:15 pm IST

Published - July 10, 2022 12:49 am IST

In need of growth: After the first phase of modernisation some years ago, AAI once again pumped in Rs. 2,500 crore and began the second phase, which includes multi-level car parking, a new integrated terminal and airside work to fix infrastructure issues and expand capacity. Though a host of facilities are in the offing, the airport needs to be larger and better managed

In need of growth: After the first phase of modernisation some years ago, AAI once again pumped in Rs. 2,500 crore and began the second phase, which includes multi-level car parking, a new integrated terminal and airside work to fix infrastructure issues and expand capacity. Though a host of facilities are in the offing, the airport needs to be larger and better managed | Photo Credit: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

Borders have opened up again, and restrictions on global movement of people have eased; as a result, travellers are returning to airports, ready to pay increasing fares and take to the skies. As the travel rebound makes headway and with India being ranked among the top 50 air travel markets by International Air Transport Association (IATA), the need to expand and be primed to handle massive passenger loads has never been as pressing as it is now.

Chennai’s air traffic, in terms of number, may be far behind other airports such as Delhi, Mumbai or Bengaluru. But to handle its own rising passenger load, a lot needs to be done.

In May, the airport recorded a 19.2% jump in passenger volume, compared with April. The Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA), a consultancy firm, had said the airport recovered nearly 75% of the May, 2019 passenger traffic; this may increase substantially in the coming months too. But the existing terminals are crammed with passengers even as the air traffic is yet to cross the pre-pandemic levels.

Travel, holiday season and growth aside, this is also a time when Tamil Nadu has set its foot forward on an investment spree, as several memoranda of understanding have been signed with business partners and other nations. Yet, a facility as important as the airport, seen as a gateway for the city, is reeling under the strain and scrambling to handle the increasing air traffic and passenger’s needs for almost a decade. From something as basic as maintenance of toilets, crowd management at immigration counters and security to lack of sufficient slots for airlines, the Chennai airport needs an overhaul.

Modernisation attempts

After the first phase of modernisation some years ago, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) once again pumped in ₹2,500 crore and began the second phase modernisation, which includes multi-level car parking, a new integrated terminal and airside work to fix infrastructure issues and expand capacity.

Though a host of facilities are in the offing, there is no doubt the airport needs to be larger and better managed, sources say. This is because when the whole new integrated terminal is ready, the domestic operations will continue from the existing buildings only (the present domestic and international terminal will function as the new domestic terminal). The international operations alone will take off from the new building. This means there could be a stark difference in comfort and facilities in these two buildings for passengers.

For years now, rumours have been circulating about a possible plan to privatise the airport within a few years, offering the hope that it may bring in much-needed interim relief for passengers. For an even longer period, discussions about a second airport have raised hopes of the people, only to be dampened by a project that has not seen fruition after decades.

A view of Chennai International Airport

A view of Chennai International Airport | Photo Credit: B. VELANKANNI RAJ

The privatisation question

B. Govindarajan, chief operating officer of Tirwin Management Services, said, “This is a uniquely positioned airport with all major transport systems — bus, suburban railway and metro — linked to it, but unfortunately its value has not been exploited entirely. Despite some of its inherent flaws, privatisation is essential for this airport because the city has already lost out a lot in the last 10 years. Air Asia, for instance, was compelled to move its base to another city though it considered Chennai at first. One of the major reasons is the lack of slots and parking space and other airside infrastructure. If this is given to a private player, there is a strong possibility that he could overcome the land issues and up the game for the city.”

Some of the basic issues that passengers face like delay in baggage collection, long queues in check-in, security and immigration and lack of hygiene in toilets may be addressed and handled better in a private airport, he adds.

A private player-managed airport would ensure that the asset is completely unlocked, unlike a government-run airport where it remains under-leveraged. Industry sources say one can visibly see the difference in growth and expansion in privately managed airports like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru or Hyderabad, compared with Chennai. A source points out that Bengaluru and Hyderabad have moved past Chennai in just a couple of years in terms of facilities, connectivity to various destinations and the number of flights and passengers handled.

Second airport

While privatisation could happen a few years down the line, the immediate plan should be to fast-track the process for a second airport in the city, experts say. Aviation consultancy Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation India has reiterated that Chennai, Pune and Kolkata are “at the greatest risk of saturation, requiring second airports”.

The plan to build a second airport for the city is back on track after almost a decade of lull. For now, two sites — Pannur and Parandur — have been shortlisted by the AAI and the decision now lies with the State government to pick a site. While the AAI, in its pre-feasibility study, has recommended that Pannur be a better choice, it is up to the State government to choose it wise and soon.

From Obstacle Limitation Surface survey to Techno Economic Feasibility Study and from land acquisition to safety and environmental clearances, there is a lot of work left to be done by the State government. An important meeting between Tamil Nadu Minister for Industries Thangam Thennarasu and Union Minister for Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia was scheduled in mid-June to discuss and finalise the site, but it was postponed in the last minute.

Industry sources fear this plan could once again vanish in thin air if a site is not chosen and the ground work doesn’t begin at the earliest.

Kapil Kaul, CEO and director of CAPA South Asia, says, “A second airport for a city doesn’t happen overnight and requires a decade of planning; it is long overdue and the authorities have to begin at least now. Usually a second airport should be part of the State’s master plan for a city.”

“After the Sriperumbudur plan, the State has really come close to finalising a site only now. So, it is highly imperative that they take it up now with a sense of urgency so that within a decade the second airport is available. Chennai has also had a historic problem of its inability to expand further owing to lack of land availability within the city limits. Though some terminal and airside expansion is on, from a long-term perspective, the airport will be saturated soon when the growth spikes in the near future,” he adds.

Though most passengers are looking forward to a second airport, they must brace for a nearly two-hour journey if the airport is to come up at either of the sites. Hence, even as the planning for a second airport begins, the State government needs to consider access infrastructure like a dedicated expressway or a high-speed rail or metro connectivity. Since there is a plan to extend Chennai Metro Rail up to Thirumazhisai from Poonamallee Bypass under Phase-II, it could further be extended to Pannur or Parandur. Or it will mean not only an exhausting journey for passengers but also a hefty cab charge to reach the airport.

“When you build an airport, you just don’t focus on it exclusively; rather you have to simultaneously look at access infrastructure. There was a challenge in Bengaluru and Hyderabad and the access infrastructure came up after the airports were opened; it did impact the city and the passengers for a long time. In Chennai, when they are planning for a second airport, they have to think that the multi-modal infrastructure should also be a part of it,” Mr. Kaul adds.

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