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Funds boon for three low-cost airports

The regional air connectivity is all set to get a boost with the Centre proposing three new low-cost airports at Muzaffarpur, Raxaul and Gaya.

Minister of state for civil aviation G.M. Siddeshwara announced this in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday while sharing details on bilateral agreement with Sri Lanka on air services to boost tourism.

Gaya already has an operational international airport but Muzaffarpur and Raxaul only have airfields, which are also used quite seldom, mostly for operation of government-owned aircraft. The airport at Gaya is not used by any scheduled airlines in the country for domestic operations, and the international operations is restricted to flights from neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia among others due to short runway.

Civil aviation experts claimed that the development of the proposed low-cost airports would depend on a number of factors including availability of land, environmental and other mandatory clearances, traffic projections and sufficient funds among others. The airports would also require support services such as access of roads, water and power supply, security, and emergency services like fire services among others.

Non-scheduled airlines, however, seem to be sceptical about the success of the low-cost airports. “Though Gaya is sure to have constant air traffic due to its tourism potential but I don’t think the other two proposed airports at Raxaul and Muzaffarpur would be financially viable. There should be some development of the region as well before coming up with an airport for that place otherwise there would be minimal air traffic at that place,” said Atul Singh, executive director at Delhi-based Centre for Aviation, Policy, Safety and Research.

Captain Deepak Kumar Singh, director (operation)-cum-chief pilot, state directorate of civil aviation, said Gaya International Airport as well as the airfields in Muzaffarpur and Raxaul are owned by Airports Authority of India (AAI). “The low-cost airports would be comparatively smaller airport having runway length of around 4,000ft. These airports could be primarily used by smaller aircraft having capacity of around 50-60 seats. In my opinion, the collective cost for developing the proposed three airports could come to around Rs 150 crore and it could take not less than three years to develop each of them,” said Deepak.

The idea of low-cost airports in the country was first mooted by the former UPA government. The decision to set up 51 low-cost airports in tier-II and tier-III cities in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra was taken during a meeting held on June 28, 2013, under the chairmanship of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to finalise infrastructure projects in the country for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

“The length of the runway at Gaya airport is over 6,000ft but it is fit for operation of comparatively smaller aircraft only like Boeing 737 and Airbus 320. Big aircraft like Boeing 777 cannot operate from there as they require runway length of more than 9,000 ft. I suggest the Centre, in its new proposal, should expand the runway length of the existing airport at Gaya and commence domestic operations as well,” said Deepak.

The runway length at Muzaffarpur and Raxaul airfields is 4,500ft and 5,000ft, respectively. “The runway at both airfields is made of brick-soling. The bricks need to be removed and runway- carpeting needs to be done for commencing commercial air operations from there,” said Deepak.

There are 21 airfields in the state at present, of which, three are under the control of the Indian Air Force — Bihta, Purnea and Darbhanga. Nine other airfields have been put in the category of “kachha” and abandoned airfields including Jehanabad and Ara among others. While the rest are under the category of metalled runways having reinforced cement concrete airstrips.

Minister Siddeshwara said 18 destinations in India, including Patna and Gaya, are available as points of calls for the designated carriers of Sri Lanka. While the Indian carriers are free to mount services from any point in India including Bhopal to international destinations available under bilateral agreements, foreign airlines can operate only on designated point of call available under the agreement.