April - June 2017
Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Bengal Aerotropolis Projects Limited
While India aims at an inclusive development in regional connectivity; Durgapur in West Bengal can boast of the first privately owned Greenfield Airport in the country.
Sharing technical and equity partnership with the Changi Airport of Singapore and devoted equity participation by the government of West Bengal, the Kazi Nazrul Islam Airport in Durgapur is setting an example in the field of infrastructure development. Partha Ghosh, the Vice Chairman and Managing Director of Bengal Aerotropolis Projects Limited, was in conversation with AIBM about the beginning of the much-talked about airport in Durgapur and its journey so far.
How did the idea of having an airport city in Durgapur come about?
Basically, back in 2008 when we started the journey in terms of creating such an airport and an airport city in Durgapur we were actually doing some studies on the first 30 urban agglomerates. Durgapur and Asansol put together stood somewhere in the 14th position amongst the urban agglomerates. Yet this was the only urban agglomerate in the region that didn’t have an airport, despite its market potential value, the buying power of the people, and the spending habits of the people. So that was the genesis with which we started thinking and planning for such an infrastructure and subsequently we had Changi Airport right from the get go. These are the basic areas that we started with and the first flight was in May 2015. As luck would have it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the airport during one of his visits and thus became the first passenger to fly out of the airport on May 10, 2015. From May 18 we opened the airport to the public and it was made fully operational commercially and thereafter initial connectivity was between Kolkata and Durgapur and subsequently to Delhi.
Changi Airport of Singapore came on board as a perfect support. Would you tell us about the association of Changi with Bengal Aerotropolis?
Initially when we started the journey Changi was more of a technical services provider but subsequently, back in 2009, within one year of our rolling, Changi decided to be an equity share holder and through and through we got the local government and the state government as our partners. So, it is in 2015 that we were ready with the whole infrastructure. Changi was of course involved in a much bigger way other than just being equity share holders. They were involved in the master planning of the airport then supervising the entire construction and even subsequently when the airport became operational, they trained our people and they are still continuing hand-holding the operations part of the airport. Basically while the airport remains the main fulcrum of such a development of a major acropolis, Changi remains the main fulcrum as the board or the shareholding of the company’s concern; because of Changi we have successfully been able to launch and make this country’s first Greenfield Airport operational. We have created a state-of-the-art infrastructure even though it may not be as opulent or vast as what you see in Changi. However, we have been very successful in adopting the best practices so far as airport operations are concerned, whether in terms of the safety and security measures or the maintenance of the airport. Some of the practices we have adopted are related to customer satisfaction, despite not handling a big number at this point, but it implies that eventually when it grows, the basic systems and processes are already running in such a way that they get embedded in the team who are operating in the airport. I must say that this wouldn’t have been possible without the active support from Changi. So, apart from the fact that they are our share holders they have inculcated quite a strong culture in terms of airport operations that are as per the international standards.
How did the government of West Bengal and India aid the initialisation of the Durgapur Airport?
The Ministry of Civil Aviation who came up with UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik), the regional connectivity scheme, was in fact meant to tap the tier-2 cities like Durgapur where there is a lot of growth potential. There is a huge influx of people commuting in and out of Durgapur and that entire catchment, which includes places like Asansol, Raniganj, Jharia up to Dhanbad and even Jasidih, Giridih in Jharkhand. So, all these put together, it’s like a hinterland with a population of almost 15 million. Thus, people keep on travelling in these areas and they are basically our target passengers. In terms of land acquisition, in terms of getting the various clearances from time to time, whether it’s a state level clearance or it is a clearance at the central government level, it is the state government who did a lot of hand holding all these years.
How is the airport placed at the moment in terms of connectivity and infrastructure?
We have a new airline that just got licensed a couple of months back, Zoom Air. They have started operating flights since February 12 this year, connecting Delhi to Kolkata and Durgapur on a daily basis. As of now, we have got an overwhelming response in that particular route. Of course it’s a triangular route to start with. It is Delhi, Kolkata, Durgapur and back to Delhi that is what the triangle is all about. As of now the response about Zoom has been overwhelming and at the state level dialogues have also been initiated with SpiceJet. As SpiceJet is based out of Kolkata and has started regional connectivity in a big way, connecting Gorakhpur and other parts; so, we are trying to see whether Durgapur could be included in that route. Right now, this airport has a capacity of handling, half a billion passengers per annum. We think the passenger terminal building has been constructed in such a way that it is modular, so we can have an expansion of the passenger terminal building and up to a passenger capacity of a million passengers is something that this entire facility will be in a position to handle five years down the line.
The airport has a 4-C classification – which means precisely all the domestic aircrafts we have, the Airbus 320 and Boeing 737 – this airport is absolutely capable of handling these aircrafts. But eventually with the further growth of passengers and more airline movement in and out of the airport at some point of time, if the government so desires, I would imagine that certain industrial forces would come into play. But otherwise even with the local police, we can say very proudly that all the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) norms have been fulfilled. They come for inspection on a regular basis. We comply by all those standards required for operating an airport of this particular size.
In terms of the facilities and domestic airport needs, we have it all. Like baggage handling system and handling of hand baggage. The security system we have might not be extravagant in nature but it is very functional. Hygiene factors have got a huge importance as part of a public utilitarian infrastructure, which is the most important part. The standard reflected is of a high quality not seen in many regional airports. As and when the air traffic grows, we hope to keep up with the passenger demands.
What is the future of aviation industry in India?
What makes the Kazi Nazrul Islam Airport a promising chapter for regional connectivity of West Bengal and the eastern India as a whole? In a country like India, where two-third of the population is young and aspiring, I think the present growth rate of 17-20 pc in the aviation section will only go up in the foreseeable future. I believe there is a huge potential in the aviation sector. The emergence of regional airports, where we are the pioneers, will change the concept of regional airports and that also on a private initiative basis. There will be many more in the coming days. The future is dependent on the tier-2 or tier-3 cities being properly catered by air connectivity, as people nowadays have started valuing time more. From that perspective there is a huge potential that this country offers.
It is not just about aspiration, but also affordability, hence in the last five to seven years a lot of growth has been witnessed in low-cost airline markets; whether it is IndiGo or SpiceJet. Ultimately there is a saturation level as far as the big cities are concerned and connectivity has to be given to the tier-2 and tier-3 cities. Having said that, what we have been able to showcase in Durgapur are some of the facilities, which I can proudly say, are not there in India as of now. For instance, night landing facilities that ensure there are no restrictions in terms of time. This enables 24×7 flexibility in accordance with the preference of the airlines. Durgapur is also equipped with a full-fledged runway, which is 2,800 metres and capable of landing all our domestic aircrafts. There is also a taxiway, which in case of an emergency can be used as a second runway. The circulation in the passenger terminal building is done in such a way that they are not clogged. The cafeteria and lounges are absolutely perfect for a two to three tier city.
We also have further plans of expansion. Something that we have to remember now is that we have set particular standards in terms of tier two and tier three city airports and I can vouch that it will definitely match some of the bigger airports in the country, if not better. So that experience is something we would like to give to our passengers, that here’s an airport that may be a smaller airport in terms of its size but it’s purely operational and functional and most importantly hygienic.