Last month on 9th October returning from a business trip, I boarded Thai Airways flight TG236 a nice Boeing 777-200ER registration HS-TJS from Hat Yai bound for Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
Normally this one and a half hour flight is a rather uneventful, even boring experience, but this flight turned out to be anything but that, and with some valuable lessons learnt.
About midway through the flight a little after we had crossed the resort island of Koh Samui, the pilot announced that there was severe thunderstorm activity over and around Bangkok which had disrupted flight schedules and our flight would have to perform circuits to accept the delayed arrival.
After about three circuits the pilot announced the thunderstorm had moved right on top of Suvarnabhumi airport and all flight operations were suspended. The flight was diverting to the old Don Mueang airport (IATA: DMK, ICAO: VTBD), which was now closed for commercial traffic.
The pilot performed a fantastic job landing in some very turbulent weather and high crosswinds. Thanks to the nose wheel camera on-board the Thai Boeing 777 I could see the crabbing of the aircraft just prior to touchdown and having flown as a glider pilot my respect for the Thai Airways captain was magnified.
Thai Airways maintains a skeleton presence at the old airport for just such emergencies and we taxied to a remote part of the old passenger terminal and shut down.
After some time the captain announced that they would re-fuel and proceed to the new Suvarnabhumi airport once air traffic control clearance was received.
What impressed me is the calm in the cabin that followed. The Thai Air staff started serving soft drinks and juices and passengers kept busy with their work, reading, chatting with each other, or talking on their cell phones. What a far cry from India, where passengers would have started bellowing at the hapless cabin crew, and general pandemonium would ensue. May be the calm was because we were in our destination city, if not our destination airport.
Through the flight home I could not but help ponder the lessons of this flight for India. In a close parallel of developments at Bangkok, in 2008 two new greenfield airports were inaugurated at Hyderabad and Bangalore. In the process the old airports at Begumpet in Hyderabad and HAL in Bangalore were closed to commercial air traffic.
Unlike Bangkok however, the Government of India, has decided to play the role of “stick in the mud”. The Ministry of Civil Aviation does not permit diversion of flights to the old airports which, by the way, are perfectly functioning, and regularly receive flights carrying highest level dignitaries like the President or Prime Minister of India apart from private general aviation traffic.
In the event of any diversion, flights to Bangalore must divert to the city of Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu almost 350 km (210 miles) away, even though their is a perfectly functioning airport only 30km (19 miles) away. The situation at Hyderabad is probably worse since the only close major airports would be Pune, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai.
Almost 18 months ago, I had espoused using HAL as an “alternate” airfield which would not only provide comfort for diverted passengers, but help save airlines from carrying tons of extra fuel as required by air safety rules. In these tough economy times airlines desperately need all the help they can get, and damage to our environment gets reduced.
Regrettably this has not happened. I suspect the owners of new airports who probably would agree with me in private, dare not do so in public. They are facing Public Interest Litigations (PILs) in the courts regarding closure of the old airports, and cannot risk softening their stance even one inch, lest it be seen as a sign of weakness.
Profit too is a powerful motivator. The stake purchase of Bengaluru International Airport Ltd. which operates Bangalore airport, by GVK, puts the valuation of the company in the $1 billion range. The stakeholders stand to gain as much as a 1000% return for a 3~5 year investment. A strong component of this valuation is based on the monopoly the airport company enjoys for 60 years (a 30 year initial term and a renewal of 30 years at the option of the airport company); a valuation that will be severely dented should the monopoly even perceived to be broken.
Let us hope pragmatism and common sense prevail.