Calcutta: Tourism hotspot Sikkim's first airport is almost ready to roll out the runway carpet for direct ATR flights from Calcutta and Delhi, causing a flutter among the early birds seeking slots to connect Gangtok by air.
Pakyong airport, near the Sikkim capital, is 4,600ft above sea level and just one inspection away from taking flight early next year.
"Our infrastructure is in place. We have got the X-Ray machine and other equipment installed. The food court is also ready. Once the final clearance comes, we will issue the tender," airport director R. Manjunatha said from Pakyong.
SpiceJet has bid for flying rights from the airport under the Centre's regional connectivity scheme called UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik). "We have bid for both Calcutta and Delhi. Sikkim is a very popular tourist destination," a SpiceJet official said on Wednesday.
A special feature of the UDAN scheme is the government's offer of "viability-gap funding" - officialese for concession - against vacant seats on a flight.
Jet Airways and IndiGo have also shown interest in operating from Pakyong, sources said.
"Even if one airline is selected under the regional connectivity scheme, other airlines can operate without the sops," said civil aviation minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju, who had visited the airport earlier this month.
A similar bait had been used to bring airlines to Andal airport in Durgapur, which became operational in 2015. More than two years later, not one large private airline operates from there because there isn't a large enough pool of passengers.
Pakyong faces no such challenge, at least not immediately, because airlines are sure about getting passengers almost round-the-year.
Since several airlines have 70-seater ATR 72 aircraft in their fleet, flights to and from Pakyong can start almost immediately.
Tourists headed for Sikkim currently have to fly to Bagdogra in Siliguri and travel more than four hours by road from there to reach Gangtok, 123km away. The distance between Gangtok and Pakyong is barely 30km.
Air connectivity will also spare tourists - and Sikkim, which depends heavily on tourism for revenue - the trouble and uncertainty that comes with agitations in Darjeeling. Many tourists could not visit Sikkim this year because of the unrest in Darjeeling from June till September. National Highway 10, which connects Gangtok to Siliguri, had been cut off for months.
"Barring the monsoon period, there is tourist inflow throughout the year. We have had a 30 per cent growth rate," said Asit Biswas, a director of Help Tourism that has a big presence in Sikkim.