Editorial: Flights of ad hocism
Business Standard / New Delhi May 05, 2008
The ad hoc nature of government policy towards airports is no longer a joke, since it has played havoc with both passengers who have to traverse large distances, and those who have invested in new airports on the basis of contractual commitments. A similar ad hoc attitude seems to prevail when deciding which airline will be allowed to fly on international routes, and when it comes to the buying and leasing of aircraft for Air-India, which (by one account) is now unable to pay salaries as a consequence of having exceeding all rational limits while taking loans for working capital. And it goes without saying that there was an ad hoc approach implicit in making the key decisions on airport charges and user fees without first putting in place a regulator for civil aviation.
It was decided years ago that the old airports at Hyderabad and Bangalore would be shut down as soon as the new ones became operational. That was part of a policy which said that new airports would not be permitted within 150 km of an existing one. Now the government seems to be having second thoughts, and the proposition has been put to Bangalore International Airport Ltd (BIAL), which has built the new airport outside the city, that low-cost carriers should continue to use the existing airport on the other side of town. And the 150-km rule may be junked in order to allow the setting up of a new airport, on the mainland south of Mumbai. It does not help that contracts with the companies that are building new airports in the southern cities mention the shutting down of existing airports as a pre-condition.
The re-think seems to be the result of a combination of forces. One is the difficulty that passengers face in reaching distant new airports in both Bangalore and Hyderabad when the ground transport links are not satisfactory. A second issue has been the high user charges being imposed by the new airports, charges which initially threatened to be more than the price of a short-haul ticket on a low-cost carrier, and which were therefore revised in another ad hoc exercise once a storm built up on the issue. The third is the pressure (part political and part commercial) to allow second airports to be built for both Mumbai and New Delhi, even before the revamping and expansion of the existing airports is complete.
The stipulation of a minimum distance works well in some contexts (it has served Kerala well, for instance, as its main airports are quite far apart at Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode). It may not make sense for metropolitan areas like Mumbai and Delhi, which themselves stretch across 50 km or more, and which therefore have provided for the possibility of second airports. And looking at the way that air traffic is growing, the 150-km limit may seem excessive in the future when the better choice might well be to allow more airports of medium capacity at shorter distances — it would certainly be more convenient for passengers than everyone trudging to one mega-facility that accommodates (say) 50 million or 75 million passengers annually. When the objective conditions suggest that a re-think is called for, it makes sense that it be done coherently, with proper consideration of all the issues and the interests of all affected parties borne in mind. Is that too much to hope for, when an ad hoc approach has ruled for so long?