I still remember the shrillness of the discussions about retaining the HAL Airport at Bengaluru when the new Bengaluru International Airport Limited (BIAL) was in the final stages of its preparation for launch. The argument then was that the closure of HAL Airport threw up a humanitarian problem that had been perhaps ignored by the Government when the Greenfield project was being negotiated, i.e. the issue of the accommodation of the KSTDC Taxi drivers who faced a bleak future and financial ruin. That problem however was solved, but many who were hoping for the retention of HAL Airport, particularly the IT Companies located in Bengaluru East were disappointed, as taking a flight from BIAL meant for them a two-hour commute through the heaviest of city traffic. The general public was however mollified by the promise of a modern, spanking and efficient airport.
Now that BIAL has been in operation for a couple of years and has been soundly criticized for being poorly conceived and under-provided for – in terms of its capacity, seemingly proved correct as it has been forced to go in for a doubling of the same several years before it had planned to. The airport, for some reason has only 8 Aerobridges which means that a vast majority of the flights have to use coaches for embarkation and dis-embarkation which in my view adds more than a wasteful half an hour to the process, while exposing passengers to the discomforts of the weather, needlessly contributing to atmospheric carbon and other inconvenience. Most modern airports aim to achieve close to 100% aerobridge arrivals and departures (except for servicing small turboprop aircraft one would guess), while BIAL has been left lagging far behind. The passenger traffic is expected to grow to 18 million in 2014, and judging from the current experience, this airport will definitely not be able to handle this explosion as the passenger facilities are too inadequate – the concourses, the food courts, the check in counters, the security counters and the emigration counters are all stretched, and doubling everything will still not be sufficient, and hence some radical solutions are necessary in my view.
I would like to list the following possible scenarios for discussion, and I hope that through this forum there will be some discussion and hopefully a couple of decision makers may agree with us and help in the resolution of some of the outstanding issues. One readily agrees that it is not practical to have two competing fully loaded airports, in the same city, as there would be untold confusion for travelers, as to which airport one needs to report to, in addition to the financial implications of reneging on the agreement with BIAL. However, with little effort, it is possible and desirable to reopen the HAL airport without hurting any party concerned for the following reasons:
§ India is going to see an explosion in Low Cost Carriers (LCC’s) in the near future, for both domestic and International routes. It would be quite unviable for such carriers to use a premium suburban airport as the cost of traveling to the city and vice versa by taxi would work out as much as the basic fare of some air tickets, making the home-to-home costs of the journey unattractive. Further, the landing fees, handling charges and parking bay charges etc. at a premium full-service airport would also work out quite expensive for an LCC, not to speak of the User Development fee and other levies the airport is forced to collect to garner revenue. Thus, if HAL airport can be used as an LCC terminal, there would be much value to be had. The infrastructure is practically ready-to-roll and major investments would not be required for this. It is an indicator that many emerging world cities have felt the need to do this and now, both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have exclusive LCC terminals, separate from their main airports.
§ Another useful justification for reopening the HAL airport is get the advantage of Cargo and Courier operators flying from there. Here again, cost being the most sensitive determinant, users would be able to book smaller cargo consignments at a lower cost within the city and only the very large consignments may find it viable to transfer the goods to BIAL. This would also mean that there would be less pressure on BIAL allowing them to offer better service levels for passenger traffic.
§ One understands that the authorities have planned a City Check-in facility for BIAL, from where one can check in their bags and catch a High Speed train / Coach to BIAL. Is it not possible to make a portion of the reopened airport the City Check in facility, and extend the high speed train link to start from HAL Airport? One understands that the train will take some years to build, but until then, the BMTC Volvo service can operate from there, with passengers just asked to undergo security check again at BIAL. As their bags are already checked in and all other formalities completed, this may not be too much of an inconvenience.
If the authorities can consider the above suggestions, many of the logistical and humanitarian issues would be adequately addressed. To cover for the issue of competing airports, the possible loss of revenue to BIAL and the dis-honoring of the terms of agreement between the Government and BIAL, it may be prudent for the government to lease out the HAL airport also to BIAL, and enter into a clean tripartite agreement wherein any revenue earned can be shared in an appropriate ratio between the Government, HAL and BIAL. Thus, HAL Airport can be operated as the BIAL-LCC Terminal.
HAL which is sitting on reasonably large passenger handling infrastructure will be able to put the same to use again and earn some revenue in the bargain. Though one speaks for BIAL, this arrangement would have many attractive benefits, not in the least the ability to plan the handling of LCC’s more cost effectively, an emergency landing facility, diversion of VIP flights, overwhelming ATC jurisdiction together with lower outlays for future capacity expansion at Devanahalli, amongst others. This way, HAL too would be provided with an opportunity to re-accrue some of its lost revenue and in the bargain, performing a big service to Bengaluru City.
The current capacity of BIAL plus the capacity that the reopened HAL Airport will offer and the addition of the capacity that is under construction at BIAL may all combine and suffice to serve the needs of Bengaluru for some 20 years comfortably. Something worth considering seriously, surely.