Bengaluru International Airport has the potential to grow in to a fine airport

Seasons Greetings.

The last few days while I was overseas, the tabling of Joint House Committee report has created great uproar. While the report essentially just re-hashes past history and does not suggest any concrete steps, old discords have been re-opened.

The newspaper DNA (Daily News and Analysis) asked me to write an opinion on whether the Bengaluru International Airport (BIA) is a “world class” airport. As usual comments are welcome.

At their invitation I have spent the better part of last week walking the length, breadth, and depth of one the truly global airports of the world – Frankfurt, Germany. I was amazed at the cooperation between the two provincial governments and the private sector in the airport operating company Fraport. As stakeholders all of them are focused on a singular goal — to make Frankfurt the global hub of choice and to take the passenger capacity from the existing 55 million to 88 million per year by 2013.

By comparison the antagonistic approach between the airport operator and the government is leading to the stagnation and progressive decline of another global airport — London’s Heathrow.

Would I consider the Bengaluru International Airport a global airport? The answer is not yet; but it has the potential to grow in to a fine airport.

The operational management at the airport operator BIAL, runs the airport with the efficiency of a Swiss watch and maintains it with Teutonic devotion, both comparable to global standards, and with Indian hospitality well above global standards.

Every Saturday the airport runway is shut down for two hours in the afternoon and given a complete head to toe inspection and maintenance. Baggage is delivered quickly and for the most part the airport is kept clean. The terminal may not be an architectural art masterpiece but it is simple, energy efficient, offers modern amenities including free Wi-Fi, and is extremely functional. Unlike most Indian airport terminals with their umpteen twists and turns, the passenger movement path at Bangalore is very linear, clean and airy. The operators also actively engage with the community and the airport has even sponsored the first and still the only, officially recognised airplane spotters group in the country, Aviation Photographers India.

Without doubt there are shortcomings at the airport and much of this stems from the fact that the operating company BIAL is badly under-capitalised, living hand to mouth. The house committee may slam the profits made by some shareholders but we should recognise those capital gains do not accrue to the BIAL company, and reflect the long-term potential of the airport. Now that GVK has taken a significant stake, we can expect capital injection and a ramp-up in capacity building.

For the present, we all remember the crowded departure halls at the airport when it first opened. A similar lack of capacity on the air-side has resulted in inadequate aircraft parking space, leaving domestic airlines unable to expand early morning and late night Bangalore flights which are crucial considering Bangalore passenger demographics of almost 100% O&D traffic.

Was the underfunding responsible for BIAL not leveraging the time afforded by the recent slowdown to build additional terminal and apron capacity? Unfortunately it appears so. For this we must hold the shareholders which includes the Governments of India and Karnataka responsible.

A gross under-calculation of fog conditions has ensured only ILS Cat I runway capability, which makes winter travel a nightmare on many days. Since almost 35% of daily passengers travel during these three peak hours of 6am to 9am the impact is felt even more. Unfortunately BIAL has not even provisioned for centre line lighting of the runway which will make a future upgrade to Cat-II or Cat-III ILS, frightfully expensive.

Frankfurt, which is considered a high “retail dedicated” airport terminal, has only 3% of its total 876,00 sq. mtr. terminal dedicated to retail, BIA has excess dedication to retail, with some reports claiming numbers as high as 30%. While we must appreciate that BIA is a new airport, and needs a higher cash input till passengers volumes pick up, we should not accept a terminal which sacrifices passenger comfort.

To remedy the situation BIAL has to increase its terminal and apron size and do it with speed and transparency. They must implement the global standard dual level terminal with arrivals on the lower floor and departures on top.

Many a passenger slams BIAL for not having lounges. Globally, an airport operator is not an lounge operator, but rather a real-estate provider. India’s domestic airlines rented the space for lounges but delayed their deployment due to the on-going economic crisis affecting the airline industry, further crowding the departure halls. So who should be the target of our ire? BIAL or the airlines?

May be BIAL has under-estimated our expectations of an airport operator which have shaped by years of the AAI “nanny” approach. Not that this inclusive approach is all bad. At Frankfurt airport, the operator Fraport has taken over the gate and ramp area air traffic management from the government run ATC tower when faced with the perennial “qualified people shortage”, leading to a streamlined air-side management which operates at high efficiency.

BIAL should also appreciate the significant portion of its revenue that is derived from the air cargo segment. Bangalore is the most intensive user of air cargo in India and is above the world average. The cargo facilities at Bangalore are above Indian norms which is reflected in the fact that one of the largest electronics companies in the world was thinking of shifting its imports from Chennai to Bangalore due to the better efficiency of the system including the customs officers in Bangalore and trucking the cargo to their factory in Tamil Nadu.

We must though, cater to the people who work at the airport. How can we expect good performance if we do not ensure the basic needs of the airport worker?

A simple glance to the left when entering the airport will highlight the lack of parking, food and toilet facilities for the customs and cargo agents’ staff toiling away in the two cargo terminals. One year after its inauguration, the cargo agents complex remains unoccupied due to a lack of regulatory clearances to be taken by BIAL.

Simple steps like providing employee toilets and promoting low cost food eateries are an immediate must. Open a “pay and use” toilet aka Sulabh or BATF. A short-term solution for food is for BIAL to open its low-cost employee canteen to drivers, etc. Providing low cost eateries with controlled disposal at their airport will also benefit BIAL by curbing the unbridled opening of dhabas/canteens near the airport whose uncontrolled waste dumping will attract more birds and increase BIAL’s costs in tackling the bird menace.

The powers that are, have discovered that the concession agreement for the airport is extremely one-sided. One can argue the reasons, but that is water under the bridge. Instead of lobbing stones, government should involve chambers of industry, frequent travellers and airport workers, and re-draft the agreement in cooperation with BIAL. Set definite expectations, arrive at time-lines and extract concrete commitments of performance and capacity which are linked to demand, and then let the operators do their job in peace.

Competition ensures that any consumer – from an airline, to a passenger, to an air-freight industry, obtains the best quality of service at the lowest possible cost. There is no doubt that BIA is the primary airport of Bangalore. However, this is a great opportunity for Bangalore to lead India in to the modern era of multiple infrastructure with an upgraded terminal at HAL airport. It is time for co-opetition.

To realize the full potential of the new airport, we at Bangalore have to adopt the cooperative approach of Frankfurt, instead of the antagonistic one at London. Bangalore airport may never have the traffic volumes to become a global hub, but it can be a formidable force in the Indian aviation scene.

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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