Jammu Airport take off Still a dream

Rajan Gandhi
Airport of any city is the economic engine of the city as well as state but it seems that our special state of J&K does not understand this simple principle otherwise Jammu’s Civil Airport would not have been neglected by successive State Governments decade after decade.
It has daily footfall of approximately 4000 passengers with on an average 20 daily flights, first incoming at 8.45 am, first outgoing at 9.10 am whereas last incoming at 3.40 pm and outgoing at 4.10 pm despite having both CAT 1 ILS (Instrument Landing System) and ALS (Approach Light System) system installed at Jammu Airport which makes even night landing feasible but the official apathy is the only hindrance to avail these facilities. It’s very interesting that for India this airport is very strategic as such it comes under the control of both Civil Aviation through Airport Authority of India (AAI) as well as Defence Ministry and here lies the problem as Jammu Air force till date has not given permission to operate any flight after 4.30 pm from this airport as ATC is being operated by them only. It is not hard to understand the plight of a common man, be it a student or professional or for that matter a patient who cannot avail the late night flight facilities despite having the infrastructure worth crores in place. Fact is there is no direct flight with any metro city except Delhi and harrowing experience of changing terminals midnight for patients and females is itself a herculean task. But who cares?
Another bottleneck has been the length of the runway which at present is 6700ft against a minimum of 8000ft. The case was taken up by the earlier NDA Government in the year 2000 and after much delay and hindrances finally army vacated the additional land. Work on the extended runway is going on at war footing and is expected to be completed by March 2020 though it can have been completed 6 months earlier but the ILS installed on the extended runway right now which assists landing during fog/ smog cannot be moved as with winter approaching it is not worth risk to remove ILS as such AAI has no option but to wait till March 2019 when weather improves and remaining work will be undertaken without disturbing flights. Right now base of runway, water channel work, digging and boundary wall construction are in full swing. Importance of this extension can be gauged from the fact that every incoming aircraft has to apply emergency brakes during landing which can lead to tyre burst or overshooting of runway as such every landing is full of risks right now. Moreover due to short runway and application of emergency brakes every aircraft has to carry reduced payload of 60-62 tonnes only against full load capacity of 72 tonnes which effectively means less passengers resultant escalation of air fare as it is one of the highest in its segment and this steep air fare is in fact deterrent to popularity of air travel and result is though there was an increase of 25 percent in air passengers in 2017-18, this year has recorded a fall of 6 percent with many airlines withdrawing their flights. Reasons are multiple not hard to analyze but solutions are also there not much difficult to implement. With almost One crore pilgrims coming to Shri Mata Vaishno Devi shrine every year AAI has taken the modernization of Jammu Airport seriously and recent upgradation of facilities are testimony to this. Terminal building has been expanded thereby doubling the passenger area and handling capacity, SHA big enough to handle 7-8 flights per hour with five boarding gates, 20 numbers of check in counters with additional 5 numbers of self – check-in kiosks, 3 Aerobridges at par with best airports of India at a cost of 10 crores , construction of additional link taxi track for convenience and reduction in aircraft manoeuvre time, rain water harvesting , retreatment of water , LED lights , modern facilities like escalators, separate childcare space to name a few.
Right now airport has expanded its terminal area from 6500 sq. m to 14,500 sq m and AAI has already proposed a detailed proposal to the State Government for further expansion of the existing airport with a proposal of new terminal building of 30,000 sq m having entry from fourth bridge side with 500 car parking facility, 22 aircraft parking bays. Of approximately 1100 kanals of proposed land, 880 kanals belong to animal husbandry, they have been provided alternative land at Chatha and Nagrota and approximately 90 kanals is private land. At one stage State Government had agreed in principle to the proposal with a demand to provide compensation to owners of 90 kanals private land but at present demand has been revised to full compensation for entire 1100 kanals which is nothing but to deprive Jammu of a real international standard airport as GoI has no policy of providing compensation of land which has to be provided by the State Government free of cost.
Further in view of the expansion proposal there is a clear circular that no further construction on this entire land be allowed but colonizers are openly selling this private land as plots which in future will result in court cases and scuttling of expansion project. Civil Aviation has also proposed a Greenfield with 4 km runway, One lakh sq km terminal building and 1600 acres of land keeping in view future requirements of next 50 years. All this land has to be provided free by State Government but as in the past with other projects like AIIMS, ring road State Government is again least interested as initially land identification process was initiated but no further progress till date. It seems vested interests do not want any development in Jammu Division.
Sincerity of AAI can be gauged from the fact that despite constraint of no flight after 4.30 pm, recent unexpected snowfall in Kashmir with NH closure as well as disruption in air traffic resulted in around 4000 stranded passengers at Srinagar which were successfully evacuated with approximately 50 flights within 5 hours and that too under constrain of reduced payload and in the due process airlines had to leave passenger baggage at Srinagar as the priority was to get humans at safe places first. All these efforts are not appreciated always but the authorities are fully focused on the welfare, trouble free journey as well as providing world class facilities to passengers. In monsoon as well as winters Kashmir highway is blocked half the time as such air connectivity is the most important link but one fails to understand why 4.30 pm deadline has not been lifted till now, put a cap on air fare to make it affordable and give the public required alternative mode of travel. One may get astonished to know that last year AAI has incurred a loss of 10 crore on Jammu operations. Despite all the recent expenditure on providing facilities some airlines have withdrawn some of their flights. Things are further complicated as except Shri Mata Vaishno Devi pilgrims, which too is seasonal like Navrataras/weekend rush, there is no effort by authorities to develop alternative tourist places in Jammu Division, there is no proper taxi stand, with no fixed fares and no packaged sightseeing trips, no bus service to any destination and in totality it means air trip is a costly affair and resultant less traffic and ultimately losses despite best facilities at the airport. Going extra mile airport administration is planning right now a meeting of hoteliers and tour operators to promote tourism in the region.
Sad state of affairs can further be gauged from the fact that state R&B has not been able to provide proper drainage at exit gate of airport with the result during every rainfall passengers have to jump and hop to come out to main road and more astonishing is the fact that two more nullahs are running through the airport premises. It is really amazing to see on one hand AAI putting serious efforts for the sake of passengers though they have nothing to gain or lose but on the other hand State Government administration is so much disinterested be it drainage, providing land or for that matter any other facility for the sake of Jammu public. Besides, people accompanying passengers are not allowed inside the premises by security personnel, but that is not the case with passengers at Srinagar Airport. Despite security threat, the relatives of passengers are allowed inside the Airport premises. One does not know why two rules prevail?
More intriguing is the fact for new Chandigarh Airport not only Punjab and Haryana provided free land but they are also 49 percent partner in the project and in return they have developed whole new airport route as commercial hub and in the process getting manifold return of their investments. Similar kind of proposal has been discussed for new proposed airports of our state but state politicians and bureaucrats once again proved that they have no vision, least resolve and zero planning for Jammu. Truth is always bitter and it’s true in this case as well. GoI is trying its best to develop Jammu at par with rest of India with IIT, IIM, AIIMS, Metro, you name any top institution/project and it’s allotted to Jammu right now but without planning for a futuristic airport in place all these plans are bound to be hampered at one or another point of time.
Keeping in view earnest interest of our present Governor to provide equal development of all regions we hope all bottlenecks are removed immediately to develop this Jammu airport as an International Airport. As they say, our local administrators have to prove ‘where there is a will, there is a way’ or otherwise all announcements are mere lip services only without an actual intent.