Wednesday , 18 September 2019
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The case for keeping HAL open in parallel with BIA

Some readers of my blog have commented that my stand for keeping HAL airport in addition to Bengaluru International Airport (BIA) is not clearly articulated. So here goes.

Thanks to the economic boom in India, the liberalisation of the aviation industry, and the efforts of the low cost carriers, who incidentally lead the global surge in aviation growth, Bangalore air traffic has exploded; to a growth level just not anticipated, let alone planned for.

In the 36 month period that BIA was being constructed, traffic has grown 255% from 4.1 million passengers per annum (MPPA) to almost 10.5 MPPA. With all due respect to the capabilities of the BIAL consortium, I dare say, there is no infrastructure project in the world, that can plan for, let alone handle this level of growth.

From terminal to airplane stands to runway to airspace, an airport is a finely tuned integration of capacity points, and the old adage of a chain being as strong as its weakest link holds true. As all airports in India have shown us, the flexibility of human beings allows terminal capacity to exceed 100%. Also, the terminal design at BIA is modular, and I believe BIAL management claims, that it can be easily expanded. However, I must temper my belief, with the fact, that BIAL management has chosen not to expand the present terminal in 2007, despite seeing the explosive growth trends.

What cannot be easily exceeded is apron, runway, and airspace capacity, for the cold hard rules of air safety dictate these operate at or below 100%, and the laws of physics determine long construction times. While BIA’s terminal is a huge improvement over the AAI owned and operated terminal at HAL airport, BIA still has, only ONE runway, just like HAL airport.

Under the safety rules of the DGCA, the runway can only handle 30 flights an hour (take-off or landing). It does not matter that the plane is a mega people moving Jumbo jet or a small commuter turbo-prop like an ATR or a cargo aircraft. Unlike vehicles on a road at rush hour, you cannot stop a plane in mid-air due to a traffic jam. Each flight has to be given a pre-determined flight slot.

As per BIAL’s own data, on its opening date, BIA’s single runway, is already “fully booked” during the peak travel hours from 6AM – 10AM and from 6PM to 8PM. In fact the 6am-7am and 6pm-7pm hours are “over-booked”, and we are still in the Summer schedule which is a lean time for air travel all over India. Where will the additional demand that will come in the peak Winter season be accomodated ?

Future growth can only come by domestic flights during non peak hours and international flights later in the night. We use air travel for
convenience, and I do not know many people willing to take a flight at non peak hours.

BIAL has independently contracted Lufthansa Consulting (LHC) on two occasions to project air traffic in Bangalore before commencing construction. Thanks to their conservative projections, Bangalore has crossed, BIAL’s “Optimistic” figures for the year 2010, 3 years ahead in 2007 and the gap is only widening with each passing day. Many seasoned industry watchers believe the BIAL projections continue to be excessively conservative, and their projection of 21.4 million passengers by 2013 is unrealistically low.

Using the real life example of India’s best and largest airport, in terms of flight operations, Mumbai, the very best that BIA can achieve with its one runway is 15 million passengers. This figure of 15 million is discounting two fundamental assumptions :

  1. Mumbai’s high number of international flights which use large aircraft (more passengers per flight), when compared to Bangalore, and
  2. The high efficiency of the highly experienced of the air traffic controllers at Mumbai, compared to the fresh recruits at BIA.

The association of air transporters (airlines), IATA, held meeting with the operators of BIA, the BIAL consortium. BIAL projected traffic of 15.6 million passengers by March 2010. The 15 million capacity of the single runway will be exceeded by calendar 2009 (18-21 months from opening). Constructing a new runway will take significantly longer.

This too is uncertain, as the IAF’s Yelahanka base is very close to BIA, and the IAF authorities have voiced their concern, despite “instructions” from New Delhi.

Even if the second runway is constructed the capacity of BIA will increase to 30 million passengers. Given Bangalore’s meteoric growth, this number will be reached by March 2015, less than 8 years after opening. Even using BIAL’s ultra-conservative projections, this will be crossed by end 2016, 9.5 years after opening.

Airspace at BIA is constrained to 40% of what HAL used to enjoy. I am not going to touch upon the restricted airspace of BIA. It is a technical subject, but if you are inclined please read my article on the REAL capacity of BIA.

In addition to congestion in the air, an exclusive BIAL also forces congestion on the ground. The Government of Karnataka is on a fire-fighting mission, spending more than Rs. 1,500 Cr., to develop peripheral roads to BIAL. Despite this development, the BBMP, is spending vast sums of money, to increase the road from High Grounds in central Bangalore till Hebbal flyover, in a clear indication that this is where most of the traffic will flow. The Operations Research Society of India, is projecting a 200% increase in traffic in central Bangalore. Keeping HAL open, will split the traffic and prevent congestion.

Airlines have indicated their willingness to operate from both airports, as along as there is adequate traffic permitted at HAL airport i.e. 2.5 million passengers and higher.

By keeping HAL open in parallel, will allow BIA and Bangaloreans multiple benefits :

  1. Extend the saturation date of BIA by another 4 years, possibly more
  2. Shift smaller turbo-prop aircraft to HAL, thus opening the slots to more valuable larger jets
  3. Improve productivity by cutting down commute times
  4. Product differentiation by using HAL as a low cost low amenities airport.
  5. Still gives BIA over 210% of its original traffic projections.

There are precedents all over the world that justifies Bangalore as a multi-airport city. Cities like Atlanta who have a very high percentage of transit traffic, need a large single airport, to justify the transit connectivity. However cities like Bangalore which have large originating / terminating traffic, have multiple smaller size airports.

The world’s busiest airspace, New York City, has 3 major airports, which started when there were only 4 million passengers, and have grown TOGETHER to serve 100 million.

Brazil is clubbed along with India in the BRIC economic group. Its major cities like Sao Paulo and Rio have a situation very similar to Bangalore. An in-city, small, domestic only, airport operating in parallel to a large, out-city, domestic and international, airport. In all the Brazilian cities, both the airports are operating as commercial successes.

A commercial venture has to operate in harmony with the community it serves. The past episode of Enron, taught us, that a commercial agreement which impedes rather than promotes its original purpose of serving the public interest, will cause the opposition and resentment from the very public it was meant to serve.

Given the fact, that even with HAL airport open, air traffic will saturate within the next 15 years, we have to start thinking of a third airport, instead of debating about the first two.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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