TAMIL NADU

Salem airport is all set to get a new lease of life



G. Satyamurty and R.Ilangovan

NewsAnalysis Air connectivity vital for mega projects coming up in the region

Air Deccan may use short-haul carriers to connect Salem with Mumbai and BangaloreIt is in the process of arranging a meeting of citizens to obtain their views Without cargo it will be difficult for any airline operation to prove viable

Coimbatore\Salem: While the move to reactivate the Salem airport is welcome, private operators will do well to ponder over the "pitfalls" that led to it remaining idle all these years.

With a flurry of mega projects involving Rs. 3,500-crore investments coming up in the region, the need for air connectivity is all the more felt. The Salem airport was the first in the country for which members of the public donated Rs. 49 lakh (including Rs. 30 lakh by Salem Steel Plant). Originally planned for Vayudoot services using small aircraft and conceived with a 1,350-metre runway, it was expanded by another 600 metres to accommodate bigger planes.

The two-decade-old dream of Salem citizens became a reality in April 1993 at a cost of Rs.6 crore on a 130-acre site at Kamalapuram, about 20 km from the city. But it proved an ephemeral joy. Even before the service was started, citizens raised major objections. They considered the Salem-Coimbatore-Chennai fare of Rs.1,350 exorbitant and were unhappy that they were forced to fly an additional 85 km to Coimbatore before taking off to Chennai. The flight leaving Salem at 6.55 a.m. would reach Chennai only at 9.25 a.m. By train one could reach Chennai in five hours at a far lower cost.

With the private airline finding the Chennai-Coimbatore route far more profitable, it suspended operations to Salem after three months. Only chartered flights have been using the airport since then. Now it has been included in the idle airports activation programme.

Agriculture Minister Veerapandi S. Arumugham told The Hindu that Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had taken the issue up with the civil aviation authorities. "We have asked them to study the feasibility of operating Indian flights as Boeing flights with load restrictions can operate from here."

K.V. Thangkabalu MP is confident that the airport would become active for both passengers and cargo traffic "very shortly," as many operators had evinced "keen interest." "It (revival of operations) has almost been finalised."

Air Deccan had obtained a No Objection Certificate in 2003 from the Civil Aviation Ministry to link Salem. It may deploy the short-haul 48-seater ATR 42-320 carriers to connect Mumbai and Bangalore. "The huge North Indian trade community prefers this," says a leading travel agency.

S. Sathyanarayanan, president, Salem-Dharmapuri Chamber of Commerce, who has been requested by Air Deccan to convene a meeting of citizens to obtain their views on issues such as schedule, said at least 100 passengers were expected from Salem (60 per cent towards Bangalore-Mumbai and the rest towards Chennai). At least 300 kg of courier consignments were expected to be airlifted daily. Being the only minor airport with Boeing landing facility, Salem could be of immense help.

The only problem, according to K. Mariappan, former general secretary of the Salem District Small Scale Industries Association, is that without cargo it would be difficult for any airline operation to prove viable. For this night landing facility becomes indispensable, as courier consignments would be ready only by night.

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