Bengaluru International Airport pre-opening visit report May-13-08

On Tuesday 13 May, 2008, along with experienced members of the Aviation Industry, I visited, the soon to be opened Bengaluru International Airport (BIA), being promoted by the BIAL consortium. My assessment on the airport. I must inform you, that I was not invited by BIAL, and so information I received was a variety of sources at the airport, including some BIAL staff.

Getting to BIA

Started from Koramangala at 9:30am. It took us 1.5 hours using the Inner Ring Road to Airport Road to Old Madras Road to Outer Ring Road to NH-7, to reach BIA. There were the usual traffic jams within the city, and the traffic police at many junctions were either missing or just watching the “show”. On NH-7, we encountered the usual problem of trucks chugging along the right most (the supposedly fast lane), and autos taking up the left two lanes, all thinking they are James Bonds (remember Octopussy).

The traffic police will have to impose discipline or else the commute will take longer once traffic builds up.

Once beyond Yelahanka the drive was considerably easier.

BMTC will be offering bus services to the new airport, which are detailed on the Bangalore Praja website.

The Trumpet Interchange
Larsen & Toubro and its contractors were working furiously. 3 loops have been completed. Just the loop from airport to North on NH-7 (towards Devanahalli) is pending. This is representative of the fast and efficient (read value for money) work by the private sector envisaged by PPP. Good job L&T.

Approaching the Passenger Terminal Building (PTB)
The overall airport has a well organised, linear, and logical layout, but long distances within the airport itself, will pose a intra-airport travel inconvenience for those who work at the airport.

The road from NH7 to the PTB is long, almost 6km, and only 1 lane. There are circles with cross traffic, and there are no traffic signs, this can pose potential traffic hazards within the airport itself.

The PTB, is in one small corner of the gigantic airport area, which caused me to wonder, what are they planning to do with ALL that extra land.

Non passengers aren‘t allowed inside the terminal, like the present airport.

The inner lane is meant for crew and VIPs. Regular passengers will have to alight on the outer lane. I was informed, that the small canopy which provided for basic shelter from the elements, was put, only after the airlines’ repeated demands.

There is fairly large area in front of the terminal, but no place to sit. I could not find any food or toilet facilities for the public. Only inside the airport, for which you must pay the entrance fee. This large area reminds me of a railway plaform with its lack of seats and the people just congregating and bustling around. For delayed flights, if you are the welcoming party, you are in trouble. Either put up with no creature comforts, or be ready to pay some very fancy fees.

Inside the PTB
By Indian standards, the PTB is decent and better than any of the legacy airports in India. It is clean but simplistic. It’s very spartan and minimalist approach, was in line with my interiors philosophy, but the externally factory shed look, is just not reflective of the about $625 million, that BIAL claims, to have invested. They could have done a lot more architecturally. I fear that once the initial charm wears off, it will become a just “another factory” building.

BIAL has demonstrated its European roots, by using natural lighting, and other energy saving and eco-friendly features, and kudos to them for this forward thinking approach. They also have a passion for cleaning, given the number of cleaning staff that was constantly at their job.

There are plentiful LCD TV Flight Information Displays (FIDs) around the terminal, but they have too small a font, and require a passenger to come to within 10 feet to read easily. It will help for BIAL to increase the font size or the display. The FIDs appeared only in English. I did not see any display with Kannada or Hindi.

There is good multi-lingual signage around the terminal, except at the top of the right side escalator, but that is something BIAL can fix easily.

In comparison to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) run terminal at HAL airport, the BIA PTB explains the “wow” factor for the average lay-person. I am giving due credit to BIAL for the new airport. The PTB is significantly better than the AAI run one at HAL. It is clean, green, simple, and functional.

However, I am fairly expert on airports having spent over 15 years monitoring various airports, and have visited well over 50 airports globally. I am take a holistic view, so please do not assume, I am raving and ranting negatively about BIA. Incidentally AAI is part of the BIAL consortium.

Ground Floor
There are 54 CUTE or Common Use Terminals for checking-in, in the departure hall. These terminals allow any airline to use any check-in counters, and balances the load. Some airlines like Kingfisher and Jet who are committing significant flights to Bangalore will have dedicated counters though. I have been pushing AAI to install CUTE in HAL since 2004. There are LCD TV displays on the top of each counter. In addition there will be 6 CUSS (Common Use Self Service) machines that will facilitate self-check-in. The baggage system has “in-line” X-Ray facilities, so there will be no need to screen your registered baggage before check-in. The check-in process is the Ace in BIA’s sleeve.

Two sets of two escalators, are at each end of the hall. I advise ALL domestic passengers to take the left set of escalators, as the domestic security check is on the left, and international the right escalators as emigration check is on the right. However, there are no signs to indicate this. BIAL officials may please note this.

I experienced a major bottleneck at the top of the right escalators, and during peak hours, and it does pose a safety risk. The bottleneck is not visible till you are 3/4th the way up the escalator, by then it is too late. It will behoove BIAL to post some security guards at the top of the escalators to ensure smooth movement and prevent any “incidents”.

On the right of the departure hall is the arrivals area. Despite the map, visitors inside the airport are tucked away in a little corner. I say, save you money and wait outside.

The arrivals hall is quite small, considering there are 7 conveyor belts. Also movement area around the belts is limited. I took the liberty of going beyond the doors to the back area of the belts. BIAL has sensibly installed X-Ray machines (for Customs inspection) on the four belts that can serve international arrivals, and assuming Customs officials man the machines in full strength, baggage should come fairly quick. I was also impressed with the fact that BIAL has insisted against the smoke belching agricultural tractors, and gone for eco-friendly electric “tugs”. I was aghast to see very little movement space for the baggage trolleys and their attendant tugs. Life for the baggage handlers will be tough, especially in peak hours. I observed a lot of wasted space in between the columns, and I could not figure out the use, nor get any clear answer.

Similarly on the departure side, the baggage make up area is pathetically small, and baggage container movement will be constrained and affect large volume operations, especially at night when large international flights operate.

I am concerned that BIAL claims a measly 3,600 bags per hour baggage handling capacity. Even the featureless Singapore Changi BUDGET terminal has almost 2.5 times the baggage handling capacity of BIA, forget comparison with the main terminals of Singapore Changi, which are much higher. My concerns get amplified by the claims of BIAL CEO Mr. Albert Brunner of a peak capacity of 2,700 passengers per hour. That translates to only about 1.33 bags per passenger.

A similar constraint exists with International arrivals. Most of the area is dedicated to duty free retail, and while the green channel of Customs is reasonably wide, the red channel is just a narrow passage. Unless, there is an overnight change in the attitude of Customs officials, this will pose a bottleneck.

The concept of “swing” belts leaves much to be desired. Given the narrow glass doors, negotiating bagagge laden trolleys will require dexterity.

First floor
It is here, I find the weakness of the terminal first rearing its ugly head. There are two major bottlenecks at the top of the escalators. The domestic departures have 8 Door Frame Metal Detectors (DFMDs). I could not see separate frisking booths for ladies, but was informed that two, one at each end were being put in. My suggestion to AAI in 2005, of having multiple frisking stations being served by one DFMD has found a taker, finally. Thank you BIAL.

While the BIA PTB is bigger than both HAL terminals put together, it is does not have significantly more space than the current HAL airport. Much of the first floor space is over dedicated to shops, restaurants, bar, and airline lounges.

The swing areas are accessible only via narrow glass doors, and I foresee some traffic jams in these areas. While it will be better than HAL, passengers who expect a smooth comfortable passage, are definitely in for a rude shock, and some traffic jams. Despite the layout map, there are only 8 contact gates. Only Gate 20 is a two arm contact gate. A feature now common at all airports with international traffic. The rest are bus gates. Given that CISF always locks one door, and expects passengers to squeeze through the narrow passage, I cannot see more than 8 flights being boarded at a time.

The nice feature added here is the concept of “gate level” announcements. Each gate has a desk, and is equipped with a Public Address system that will announce in the gate area only. No more shouting all over the airport, and no more incessant announcements of flights boarding or arriving all over the airport. A very desired requirement in today’s frenetic pace.

The number of departure emigration counters, 16, are the same as in the HAL airport. So passenger volume throughput will be determined not by BIA, but by the number of counters the immigration officials staff. All passengers are expected to walk through the narrow passage in duty free and I foresee some traffic jams here. The departure lounge is about 1.5 times bigger as the one in HAL, but significantly, there is a Kingfisher Sports Bar (yeah!!!!), and a common CIP (Business/First Class) lounge run by Oberoi.

A similar situation exists for the arrival immigration. The number of counters are the same and the hall size is also about the same. Arriving international passengers are expected to come from the gate and then go up one floor to the mezzanine and proceed in a glass enclosed catwalk across the first floor wall, and take an escalator down, to arrive at the immigration counters. This reminded me of an aquarium. The area in front of immigration cannot take more than 2 flight loads of passengers. This is a choke point, and again, is right at the bottom of the escalator, creating another safety hazard. BIA will have to consider deploying security personnel to ensure no unfortunate incidents occur.

BIA has one runway 09-27 with ILS Cat 1 at both ends. Readers know that the single runway at BIA is my biggest concern. I have shown that BIA’s single runway will saturate at 15 million passengers. Some BIAL officials confirmed to me, that the second Rapid Exit Taxiway shown in the plans for Runway 09, has been dropped. This will have at least a 10% impact on the flight capacity.

Unfortunately, it is Runway 09 that is used during the winter months, when load is at its highest. BIAL needs to re-instate the second Rapid Exit right away.

Support Facilities
The support facilities are sorely lacking. The existing canteen cannot even cope with BIAL employees, let alone non-BIAL employees. There is no office facilities for the airlines, their office building is still under construction. Readers will be advised to be understand if any airline employee is grouchy.

The cargo terminals are getting ready, but the offices for the cargo and customs agents are not, but BIAL is putting in fire-fighting efforts, and by June end, there should be a temporary facility ready.

Future Expansion
There was talk about a “revised master plan” that will make an L shaped terminal rather than two terminal concept as per the current “master plan”. I still cannot comprehend how passenger traffic will be increased 3.5 times to 50 million with only a doubling of existing infrastructure.

During the visit some BIAL officials admitted that with the single runway, their capacity is a maximum 15 million, and there are doubts about the second runway. The Indian Air Force is very concerned about safety since Yelahanka Air Base is only 3 nm south of BIA. Permission for the second runway is not forthcoming, and there were apprehensions within BIAL, that even if permission was given, significant operational constraints would be imposed, hence rendering the second runway with only half capacity, effectively.

If this is the case, BIA can at best grow to 22.5 million passengers, a figure that BIAL projects it will reach by end 2013.

The ancillary activities at the airport like Cargo etc., will need a LOT more investment than is currently made.

Plenty of land, but not for airport
I was amazed at the amount of land lying unused at BIAL. 4,000 acres is a lot, and in comparison, the PTB, occupies one small puny corner of the airport.
BIAL consortium is planning to lease out more than 1,000 acres of land to developers for malls, offices, flats, parks, hotels, everything, but airport. Space that should be used for a third terminal and additional airport infrastructure, is instead being diverted.

Global Hub
In India, we are the victim of legacy thinking. We feel that international flight timings are limited to the night only. Therefore an airport can operate 24×7 utilising the same infrastructure for the two different peaks of domestic and international demand. However, BIAL was conceived as, and even BIAL officials promote the BIA as an international hub. This will require 24×7 international operations, coupled with 18×7 domestic.

For this, the airport needs far more facilities, at global standards, than the BIAL consortium appears willing to make.

Money, Money, Money
The impression I got from touring the airport, and speaking to people was that this was all about money. EVERYTHING is subservient to money.

BIAL as a company stands to make profits that will choke an elephant. They have a 60 year EXCLUSIVE lease, with a 150 km monopoly, and even before opening, they are demonstrating their power. While other airports like RGIA, Mumbai International Airport Limited (MIAL), Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL), have accepted Government requests to curb UDFs, BIAL has ignored multiple requests and will hit all departing passengers with a User Development Fee (UDF) of Rs. 757 (675 + Tax) for domestic, and Rs. 1,122 (1,000 + Tax). This is over and above the Rs. 225 Passenger Service Fee (PSF).

In the first year alone BIAL will earn in excess of Rs. 500 Crore ($125 million) in UDF. BIAL will earn in UDF its entire project investment till date in less than 5 years.

After that they will develop the real estate and continue raking in the profits.

I am not against profits. Running a company myself, I know companies are in business for profits not charity. I do not deny the right of BIAL consortium to make money. But the issue raising it’s head is, deciding the balance between private profits and the social responsibilities of a monopoly infrastructure ?

We have experienced another PPP monopoly in the past — it was called the British East India Company.

In conclusion
The passenger terminal is decent, and definitely a step above the AAI terminal at HAL. The cargo facilities are definitely ahead of the miserable excuses run by MSIL and JWG.

I am not against BIAL. Having a track record of fighting for additional infrastructure, I welcome the Bengaluru International Airport . I am concerned about the capacity, and therefore, am in favour of keeping HAL airport running, as a supplement to BIA. I have even made a radical proposal that BIAL ground handling agent Globe Ground or RGIA handling agent Air India-Singapore Air Terminal Services (AI-SATS) take over terminal handling from AAI at HAL.

We have to consider that our government has already spent over Rs. 1,000 Cr on developing roads to the airport, and plans to spend at least another Rs. 5,000 Cr in connectivity. BIAL and its concessionaires have spent Rs. 3,500 Cr., and will spend probably another Rs. 2,500 Cr. BIAL wants India to shut down existing infrastructure (something which I vehemently oppose) worth another Rs. 2,000 Cr.

Let us to do a reality check. Are we are getting value for our Rs. 14,000 Cr spent ? At this stage in the project, I feel we are essentially getting an airport that is similar HAL, but with just a pretty terminal, and my answer is a resounding NO.

For those who claim BIA to be a “world class” airport, I have only one word “PUH-LEASE”.

Having visited Zurich airport over 30 times till now, I know that Mr. Brunner and his team are capable of delivering much more value.

BIAL keeps claiming that the airport will be able to cater to 15 million passengers per year, and up till now, I believed BIAL claims as far as the terminal is concerned.

After my visit, I cannot accept BIAL claims. There is no way on God’s green earth, that BIA with the present terminal can cater to 15 million passengers, in the comfort, of a halfway decent international airport. May be in cramped conditions like HAL, 15 million it is possible.

But then why do we need to spend all this money and go all that distance ?

When compared to Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Airport (RGIA), which has 105,300 sq. metres of terminal space for 12 million passengers (currently at 6.5 million), BIAL has only 71,000 sq. meters for a claimed 15 million passengers (at 12 million). Effectively BIA will have twice the passengers in the same terminal area as RGIA.

I am an open person, with no affiliation to any aviation related entity (airline, airport, or company). Till someone from BIAL shows me around, clarifies my concerns, and convinces me otherwise, my views will remain.

To obtain the most independent assessment, I did not carry a camera, and did not use my cell phone, as per instructions, inside the terminal. Therefore I have used some Photos of Flickr user Photoyogi, from his BIAL visit photoset.

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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