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Why Pune Airport Sucks

Omkar Goswami



So, here I am, at Shanghai suffering from severe depression. Here is a 18 million strong megalopolis that is light years ahead of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai and everything else you could possibly think of in India. Shanghai exhilarates and depresses. Exhilarates to witness how China has been able to build a classy first world city which has to be seen to be believed. Depresses because I cry for India’s wilderness years, when we ought to have concentrated on building world class physical infrastructure, but wasted them in debilitating debates on the political economy of what has to be one of the most glacial pace of economic liberalisation.

Sitting in Shanghai, I have thought of Pune Airport on several occasions and got enraged. The anger has nothing to do with Shanghai per se. Both the airport and the city of Pune have become nightmares of their own accord. It is just that each visit to Shanghai makes me acutely aware of India’s terrible infrastructural inadequacies. And since I’ve been visiting Pune once every ten days over the last three months, its becoming obvious to me how far behind the curve we are, especially for a city that wants to become yet another software and IT hub of India.

Pune Airport is controlled by the Indian Air Force which has the first right of use of the single runway. It is also way too small to deal with the explosion in air traffic that has occurred since Pune got on to the IT and BPO map of the world.

Consider the evening air traffic in and out of Pune. On my last count, six flights land and takeoff from that inadequate airport during 5-7.30 pm, of which five are clustered between 6 pm and 7.30 pm. Thus, in this two and a half hour period there well over a thousand passengers waiting to make their way out of Pune. In a normal airport, this volume would have been trivial. But in Pune it is a disaster. The tiny apron can handle no more than three Airbuses or Boeing 777s plus, at a pinch, a smaller jet. So, flights get routinely delayed as they either take off late from their origin to stagger their arrival and departure, or waste precious fuel circling the Western Ghats awaiting permission to land.

In seven of the last eight trips to Pune, the queue for security has been over 150 passengers long, snaking around the terminal in myriad ways depending on the artistic whims of the CISF security personnel. But that’s not all. There are two X-Ray machines for checking hand baggage in Pune. However, during the peak hours, one only is kept operational. Do you know why?

Because, with only one magnetic gate for the males servicing just two frisking counters, there is a mismatch between frisk points and X-Rays. So, instead of redesigning the security bay to create at least two additional frisking posts, the CISF has opted for a classically Indian solution — shut down one machine and elongate the queue. Clever passengers have tried to short circuit the system by arriving for security at the time of the final boarding call. Obviously everyone can’t play that game; and since India has no dearth of this type of cleverness, the experiment has typically backfired.

Normally, CISF personnel in most airports are both polite and efficient. Pune is an exception. The team feels that it is suffering; its leader is a guy who struts around and does precious little; and its basic view of world is that if we are getting it in the neck, why not the passengers.

The outcome: seven of the eight flights that I’ve taken from Pune to Delhi in the last three months have been between 45 minutes to an hour and a half late. That’s almost entirely due to apron inadequacies, loading problems and the delays at security.

With such infrastructure, it is a foregone conclusion that India will attain 10 per cent growth year after year. In the meanwhile, from 13 December, yet another flight is scheduled to take off from Pune: the 7 pm Indian Airlines flight to Singapore. Hallelujah to that!

Published: Business World, December 2005


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