Event ReportsPublished on Sep 25, 2010
Mumbai still continues to enjoy its position as the country's commercial capital thanks largely to the infrastructure advantage it is blessed with, which was progressively built since the days of the British Raj keeping in mind the future expansion of the city as India's trade and business hub.
Mumbai's Second Airport: It's Time To Think Big
Mumbai still continues to enjoy its position as the country’s commercial capital thanks largely to the infrastructure advantage it is blessed with, which was progressively built since the days of the British Raj keeping in mind the future expansion of the city as India’s trade and business hub. Unfortunately, Mumbai is in danger of slowly and steadily slipping from that esteemed position because of growing neglect for its public infrastructural needs.

Public transport services in the city have deteriorated. The port in Mumbai was once the largest in the country. It is no longer so. Mumbai’s existing airport was once the largest in the country, in terms of passenger movement. It has lost that position to Delhi. Mumbai’s suburban railway system, once the pride of the city, has not received due attention. Mumbai’s railway stations are primitive by international standards. Maharashtra seems to be also losing out in the ambitious Dedicated Freight Corridor of Indian Railways which aims to connect the four metros. Now, if Mumbai settles for a less-than-the-best option for the second airport, Mumbai’s downward slide will be further accelerated.

The entire debate on Mumbai’s new airport is currently focused on the likely environment impact of the Panvel site at Navi Mumbai. While environmental issues are certainly important, it is sad that very little attention is being paid to the undesirability of having a new airport which would not be world-class in terms of capacity, and could reach saturation in just about 25 years of operation. This is a strong possibility at Panvel, which faces severe land constraint. When that happens, there will be no land available for the development of a third airport and that will be a disaster for Mumbai.

Given the developments taking place at mega airports all around West Asia and Asia Pacific, it is important that the government takes a long-term view to ensure that an ultimate capacity of at least 100 million passengers a year is achieved at Mumbai’s new airport. This is the norm for all major airports in the world, including the one at New Delhi. By contrast, the 1,140-hectare site at Panvel provides an ultimate passenger capacity of only about 50 million passengers a year, which could prove to be grossly inadequate to serve the financial capital of the world’s second-most populous country. According to the Government’s own traffic projections, Mumbai’s two airports will together handle a total of 119 million passengers in the year 2031?>32. However, their total capacity will be only 90 million passengers – or less. How is Mumbai going to handle that traffic?

An equally serious an issue, which could potentially force all airlines to altogether avoid Mumbai as a destination, is the severe strain on air traffic movements at the current airport, which is fast reaching total runway saturation. Mumbai airport currently has the maximum capacity to handle about 32 peak hour air traffic movements. New Delhi, by contrast, has peak hour runway capacity to handle 55 aircraft movements. As a result, Mumbai, which was India’s busiest airport till 2007, has lost this coveted position to New Delhi.

By conventional estimates, even if construction of the second airport was to begin today, it will take at least 5-8 years for the commencement of phase I operations. It is, therefore, inevitable to first ensure increasing the capacity and efficiency of the present Mumbai airport as an interim measure till such time a long-term solution is achieved.

ORF Mumbai and Bombay First organized a roundtable discussion on the subject on Saturday, September 25, 2010, which was attended by a cross-section of stakeholders including senior representatives of airlines, aviation analysts, airport planners, investment banks and city-based transport and civic activists. A report titled “Mumbai’s Second Airport: What Mumbai must learn from international experience” formed the basis of the discussions. This roundtable concluded with a unanimous consensus for:

  1) Appointment of a committee of expert airport planners to urgently evaluate ways to ensuring capacity expansion and increasing efficiency of the Mumbai airport, by exploring the possibility of construction of a parallel runway ensuring standard runway separation to allow simultaneous independent operations.

      a. This could be achieved by immediate and result-oriented steps to remove the all the encroachment on the airport land, which has only exacerbated the pressure on airline operations. Previous governments have come out with plans in this regard, which unfortunately have remained merely on paper. It is time for the present government showed some strength of purpose in this regard. The vast tract of land at the Juhu airport, which is lying idle – but for some very marginal helicopter operations – could be considered for shifting the slums that have encroached upon the airport land for decades together. This alone will free nearly 300 acres of land for airport expansion.

      b. The Air-India engineering facilities and a few of its offices, including some of the allied works of Jet Airways, must be demolished and even that additional land must be utilised for airport expansion.

  2) The government must expeditiously evaluate all the probable sites for Mumbai’s second airport and only settle for one that would enable setting up of an airport infrastructure that would be world?>class in terms of capacity and scale. The Panvel site at Navi Mumbai seems totally unviable on this count; forget the enormous adverse impact it is bound to have on the environment and the sensitive ecology of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.

Speaking at the roundtable, Shri Saroj K. Datta, Executive Director of Jet Airways, warned that if the capacity and efficiency of Mumbai’s airport is not increased urgently, airlines would be forced to drop Mumbai from their destination list. “Managing operations at the Mumbai airport, which has nearly reached saturation in terms of handling airline traffic, has become a nightmare for airlines. Irrespective of when and where the second airport is developed, the government must decide, as an interim measure, to increase the existing capacity and efficiency of the current airport,” he said.

Panvel airport would be a gross mistake, as it would reach saturation in just about 25 years after commencement of operations. “When that happens Mumbai’s will not have land available for the development of the third airport,” said aerospace analyst Hormuz P. Mama, the author of the ORF Mumbai report.

Shri Sudheendra Kulkarni, Chairman, ORF Mumbai said that Mumbai city needs to be made world?>class. India used to be regarded as a Third World country. Today, it is the third most important country in the world. Railway infrastructure has been going down. In 1863, Mumbai was the city where rail services had started. Today, it is totally inadequate for Mumbai’s requirements. Mumbai’s seaport is no longer the country’s leading port. Similarly, Mumbai’s airport, which had consistently led the country in terms of passengers handled, is now second to Delhi. “We cannot view aviation as being elitist anymore. The aspirations of the common Indian citizens are rising and we have to ensure that we create infrastructure which will serve the growing demands of a young and dynamic India,” he said.

Shri Narinder Nayar, Chairman, Bombay First, emphasized that the future development of Mumbai and of India will depend on Mumbai’s second airport. Thus it is important for the government to take the right decision and build an airport which will be world?>class and world?>scale.

Airports are powerful engines of regional economic development. They are major centres of business, commercial and industrial activity that can drive economies of entire regions. Without doubt, an airport is also an entry point where a visitor has his first – and most lasting – impressions of that country. An unviable and inadequate second airport for Mumbai will be a jumbo mistake!

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