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Characteristics of Punjab’s leading airports

PUNJAB NEWS EXPRESS | May 29, 2021 06:24 PM

By Harjap Singh Aujla
Punjab has only two well meaning airports, Amritsar and Chandigarh. The others are merely military bases improvised to handle limited commercial flights. The traffic patterns and characteristics of Punjab’s two major airports are marked different. Amritsar is decidedly the oldest airport in Punjab.

Work on its construction started during World War II in 1943 and in 1944 it was fully operational. It was meant to facilitate seamless movement of military officials based in Lahore and the cantonments of Ferozepore, Jullundur and Amritsar. It initially handled essential supplies of some military hardware too. Within a few months of the commencement of its operations, another aerodrome started functioning in neighboring Lahore.

After independence, Amritsar Air Base played a leading role as an essential supply and fueling station for the Indian troops serving in the Valley of Kashmir during the 1947-48 Kashmir War. Later on Ambala, Adampur and Halwara air bases assumed more importance as the fighter jet and transportation aircraft stations and Amritsar started serving more as a civilian airport.

When prosperity spread in the Hindu and Sikh minorities in Afghanistan during the 1960s, Amritsar Airport became their entry point into India. The Afghan Hindus and Sikhs had friends and relatives in the business community of Amritsar and mutual trade in precious cargo started in 1960s. Soon regular Indian Airlines flights started between New Delhi – Amritsar – Kabul and Amritsar – Kabul routes. Within India Amritsar was connected to New Delhi and Srinagar.

Chandigarh’s Air Base meant for handling fighter jets and transportation planes also started handling civilian flights during the 1960s. The first civilian connection was between New Delhi and Chandigarh. Later on Srinagar was also added. After November 1, 1966, Chandigarh became the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana, but most of the Haryana traffic was handled by New Delhi Airport. Since Himachal Pradesh is a hilly state, large flatland airports cannot be built in that state. Therefore all the summer traffic heading to Simla was also handled by Chandigarh Airport. During the 1970s, Ludhiana replaced Amritsar as the industrial capital of Punjab. Since Ludhiana was closer to Chandigarh, compared to Amritsar, its entire domestic traffic was handled by Chandigarh. So Chandigarh Airport emerged as a dark horse with a bright future.

During the Second World War most of the working age British youth died or maimed. England needed new workers to man their manufacturing units. Young able bodied Punjabis started making a beeline to the industrial British Midlands during the 1950s. By the end of 1960s, by dint of their hardwork the new settlers from Punjab became financially well off. They belonged mostly from the districts of Hoshiarpur, Jullundur, Kapurthala, Nawanshehar and Amritsar. As prosperity arrived rather than going to New Delhi for every flight, they started demanding flights from Amritsar to Birmingham and London. These whispering demands started from the Gurdwaras of the British Midlands and spread to London area and Punjab.

In 1977, the 400th Founding Anniversary of Amritsar was celebrated. One of the main demands raised by the Punjabis was to declare and develop Amritsar Airport as an international airport. Morarji Desai was the prime minister then. He told the Punjab Government to make Punjab dry and he will make an international airport in Amritsar. He lost power after two years, but the demand kept gathering steam. By the beginning of 1980s Amritsar – Birmingham flights were tried via Kabul and Moscow. The passenger load was unusually high on both sides.

Roughly from 1982 onwards, law and order situation in Punjab started worsening. Communal killings resulted in dismissal of Darbara Singh led democratically elected Congress Government in Punjab and cancellation of all international flights from Amritsar Airport. Operation Blue Star in June of 1984, resulted in full scale insurgency between 1984 and 1995. Peace returned after no holds barred undeclared war between the police and the militants from 1984 to 1997.

Once again the demand for building a well meaning international airport in Punjab was raised. During the period of Inder Kumar Gujral as the prime minister, two sites, one on the Jalandhar – Kapurthala Highway within Kapurthala district and the second at village Rajasansi in Amritsar became candidates for a full fledged international airport. One of the lingering side-effects of Punjab militancy was fleeing of industry from the border districts of Gurdaspur, Tarntaran and Amritsar. Its second impact was dropping of land values in all these districts. Once land in Amritsar was the most expensive, but during the militancy it hit rock bottom. On the other hand land value in rural Kapurthala was hovering around Rs. 1 crore per acre. A parcel of three hundred acres was acquired in Kapurthala district. Land already in hand at Rajasansi was in excess of one thousand acres, more could be bought at nearly one million rupees per acre.

Since the airports are a central subject, the claims of the two sides were deliberated at the highest level in the corridors of power in New Delhi. The Doaba lobby was pleading its case on the strength of its NRIs, who were most likely to use the airport and the French style buildings of Kapurthala were tourist side-kicks. The Amritsar lobby was pleading that the Golden Temple was a universally recognized tourist attraction and the airport already existed on the ground in Amritsar, plus land was much cheaper in rural Amritsar. The Prime Minister I.K. Gujral pulled his weight in favor of the Kapurthala site, but being a reasonable man, he was not stubborn.

One of the senior IAS officers hailing from Nabha in Punjab Mr. Chiranjeev Singh was serving in the Karnataka Cadre. During those days he was posted in the central government. His posting was connected with tourism and civil aviation. He pulled his weight in favor of Amritsar. Amritsar was located closest to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Europe and North America. It was approved not only as an international airport, but as a gateway airport in addition to New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Bangalore.

During the term of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee 1998 to 2004, two airlines from the former Soviet Union, Turkmenistan Airlines and Uzbekistan Airways started operations to Amritsar. Turkmenistan Airlines was travelling from Birmingham to Ashghabat to Amritsar. Uzbekistan had London or Paris to Tashkent and Amritsar route. For some time they operated on Birmingham – Tashkent – Amritsar route too. Both were making profit. Then Singapore Airlines applied for Singapore – Amritsar Route. Their flights were running packed to capacity but since they were picking up most of their passengers from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver, the distance being too long, they were not making any profit. In 2005, Singapore Airlines pulled out of Amritsar Airport. Then Jet Airways applied for Amritsar – London (Heathrow) route. Their flights were also running full, but after GMR built terminal T – 3 at New Delhi, even Jet Airways pulled out of Amritsar. Jet Airways never gave specific reasons for this.

Amritsar Airport’s expansion took place during the prime ministerial tenure of Dr. Manmohan Singh. It got India’s second longest runway of 12001 feet. New Delhi has one runway 14500 feet long runway, which is the longest in India. Amritsar received 14 parking spaces for the largest and medium sized aircraft. It received modern taxiways and a strengthened runway. CAT 3 B instrument landing system, which is installed only at the major airports in India, was established at Amritsar too. From technical stand point, Amritsar has one of the most complete airports in India. This up-gradation lured several domestic and international airlines to Amritsar Airport.

Sukhbir Singh Badal thought that Amritsar is located too far away from the state capital of Chandigarh. On becoming deputy chief minister after the 2007 election, he floated the idea of building an international airport in Chandigarh. He hurriedly planned an airport terminal in adjoining town of Mohali, because the army and the air-force had land on three sides of the old airport at Chandigarh, the only side where a decent sized terminal could be built was in Mohali. The terminal was built with 24.5% share of Punjab and 24.5% share of Haryana, the rest was centre’s share. But there was a limit to which the runway could be extended. Since the township of Zirakpur has some private constructions next to the runway, installation of CAT 3 instrument landing system faces some difficult problems, which the government is trying to solve. That is why late night operations, especially during the winter are posing a problem.

Chandigarh has nevertheless developed into a very attractive domestic airport. During best times it has multiple, more than half a dozen flights each to both New Delhi and Mumbai. Bangalore has three to four flights. Other destinations like Hyderabad, Srinagar, Jaipur, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Pune, Kulu, Dharamshala, Leh and Kolkata have daily flights. Some more cities are added every month. On certain days Chandigarh has forty landings and as many departures. Dubai and Sharjah are Chandigarh’s international destinations. Chandigarh has the advantage of summer season traffic to Shimla and the hill destinations of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Since IT industry is also coming up in Mohali, there is more IT traffic from Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Pune. Ludhiana being the industrial capital of Punjab is contributing roughly about 40% load at Chandigarh Airport. To be candid, Sri Guru Ram Das Ji International Airport at Amritsar has proven that it is more of an international airport than a domestic airport. Due to Covid-19, there are lots of restrictions on the international travel. This situation is hurting the Amritsar Airport. The Sikh sentiment of Punjabi NRIs is putting a lot of pressure on airlines to operate flights to Amritsar. Amritsar can easily fill a daily Boeing 777 or 787 plane to Rome, London, Birmingham, Melbourne, Sydney, Vancouver and Toronto. This was proven time and again during the evacuation flights undertaken in the summer of 2020.

It can be safely concluded that Chandigarh is a very attractive domestic airport and Amritsar is essentially an international airport. There is need for two daily Amritsar – Chandigarh flights. Due to Covid-19 induced restrictions on domestic as well as international flights, the traffic handled by both Chandigarh and Amritsar airports has nosedived. The number of daily flights handled by both airports has taken a steep fall. In case Covid-19 comes under control, the traffic at both airports will bounce back. At present both airports are hurting.

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