An Indian Airport Hurries to Make the First Flight

May 22, 2008
Bangalore Journal
An Indian Airport Hurries to Make the First Flight

BANGALORE, India — For years, frequent fliers in this technology hub complained bitterly about having to suffer the indignities of a tattered and tiny airport scrunched in the middle of a busy city neighborhood.

Now, with a new one opening on Saturday, people are clamoring once more. This time, to keep the old airport open.

The reversal does not reflect a sudden bout of nostalgia, but rather the fear that the new airport, no matter how modern it was intended to be, seems destined to be the latest repository of India’s astonishing inability to plan for its future and fix its sagging infrastructure.

The way things stand now, the trip to the new airport, 21 miles outside town, will easily take 90 minutes from the city center, and even longer from the software companies that have turned Bangalore, also known as Bengaluru, into India’s own Silicon Valley.

India’s famously sluggish bureaucracy has meant that workers are only now scrambling to finish widening the main road to the new airport. The city water supply has yet to reach the area, making it impossible to begin construction on the shops and office towers that are supposed to sprout around the airport. Even though airport officials were ready to open on schedule, in March, air traffic controllers said they needed more time to train. Late Wednesday, airport officials said they had been told by the government to postpone the opening by one day, to Saturday.

Bangalore has company in its misery. Attempts to revamp roads and ports have run into chaos all over India, not least because the actual growth of this bustling nation of more than a billion people consistently outstrips even the most perspicacious planner’s vision for it.

Traffic was backed up the day a new highway toll plaza linking New Delhi to its new satellite boomtown, Gurgaon, opened this year because planners far underestimated growth in traffic.

A high-speed bus route in the heart of Delhi was lambasted recently for pinching into car lanes, and no one, including the cows, seemed quite sure of which lane to use anyway. Several other major projects are behind schedule and mired in graft, including a new national highway.

The hullabaloo over the new airport is only the latest parable of India’s growth. That tale begins with the government’s decision to sign a deal with a private consortium to build the airport, agreeing to close the old state-run one, and effectively giving the new one a monopoly.

Generous as it was to the developers, it apparently failed to account for the Indian zeal to fly. Air traffic in and out of Bangalore has more than doubled since construction began three years ago, compelling the developer to amend the design of the airport.

Built on 4,000 acres and modeled after the airport in Zurich, whose developers are working on this project, the new airport now promises to accommodate 11 million passengers in its first year.

Still, most road and rail links that the government had promised to build to the airport have been delayed or scrapped, in part because lawsuits over acquiring the land and in part because they involve 32 government agencies.

Adding to the confusion, the state has been in the grip of political squabbling for many months.

Today, with air traffic likely to keep growing, an influential civic lobby is pushing for both airports to operate. Bangalore City Connect, a private industry-financed group that advocates for better urban infrastructure, said failing to plan for future growth would only add to Bangalore’s woes.

Albert Brunner, chief executive of the new airport, declined to comment on the appeal to keep the old one open, except to point out that the new one has plenty of room to grow. “It is our goal to always provide an infrastructure which is sufficient for or even ahead of the demand,” he said in an e-mail message.

The government official responsible for transportation to the airport said “future-proofing” had been complicated by the city’s “unforeseen” growth.

“We have been developing infrastructure all along,” argued V. P. Baligar, principal secretary for commerce and industries for Karnataka state, of which Bangalore is the capital. “The growth of the population has been faster.”

One lawsuit holding up the expressway project concerns D. M. Dwarkanath, a retired executive of a state-owned company. He risks losing his small bungalow to make way for the route. A hospice for children with AIDS is also threatened.

Such cases have sown deep resentment among many people here, who wonder: Why do people have to make way for India’s frequent-flying classes, which are still relatively small?

“It is only for the rich people,” Mr. Dwarkanath said fuming. “They don’t have patience. They want to rush to the airplane. They want to sweep everyone out of the way. Why should we live? Sweep us into the sea!”

They further contend that the path of the proposed expressway has been amended to spare the properties of politically connected people, a charge Mr. Baligar denies. He says the national highway authority will decide who must make way for the highway.

While the lawsuits crawl through the courts and bureaucrats pass files from one agency to the next, patience wears thin on Victoria Road in Bangalore. On a recent weekday morning, laborers carried stones on their heads, repairing a storm drain and backing up the morning traffic along two narrow lanes.

M. N. Badrinath, a salesman who spends three to four hours a day on the road, was skeptical. By the time repairs on this road are finished, he surmised, there will be even more cars. “The promises are like castles in the air,” he said, as he tried to sneak through a police line and into the traffic. “Are they planning for the future or for the present?”

An auto-rickshaw driver, Chand Pasha, said as he waited for a green signal: “My life is in traffic. It cannot get more miserable than this.” The misery of Bangalore’s roads has brought an unexpected boon to G. R. Gopinath, whose low-cost airline, Deccan, expanded the ranks of India’s fliers.

Mr. Gopinath is in favor of keeping the old airport open. Even so, starting Saturday he will offer a helicopter shuttle for commuters. It will cost about $100 and take 10 minutes.

Source : The New York Times

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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