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Revised flight plan for city airport, again

With rising traffic and the existing facility bursting at its seams, a drastic overhaul of the inadequate amenities has become the need of the hour. The work that will begin soon will also hopefully help address many of the complaints raised by passengers
Saturday morning was chaotic at the Chennai airport as many flights were delayed or cancelled in the heavy smog caused by festive Bhogi bonfires. But the airport with an unenviable public image of leaky roofs, cracking glass panels, collapsing false ceilings and multiple bird hits is finally gearing up for a radical overhaul in the coming months.

The modernisation project comes five years after the airport underwent its Phase I expansion.

Soon after the announcement was made, doubts were expressed over whether the Anna International Airport needed another massive investment of ₹2,587 crore only years after nearly the same amount had been spent for the Phase I development of the airport in 2013. With the airport growing at 10-15% annually, as per statistics provided by Airports Authority of India (AAI) officials, the expansion and re-modification of the Chennai airport has become an immediate need for the city. A report by the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) in 2017 reiterates the need for a second airport for the city as well.

“In Chennai, the site for a second airport has not yet been finalised, which means that operations are still several years away,” the report says.

The proposed Phase II modernisation will require the old T2 (Kamaraj Domestic) and T3 (Anna International Airport) terminals to be pulled down and reconstructed. The existing domestic and international terminals, T1 and T4 respectively, will be modified. The project also calls for the construction of additional parking bays, a travelator and a multi-level car parking facility.

Better design

Since the existing terminals have been mocked for their poor design and engineering-related issues, officials say the Phase II expansion focusses on them. AECOM, a firm that has been a consultant to Singapore’s celebrated Changi Airport, says it will recreate that experience for passengers here as well.

“This time, there certainly won’t be issues like cracking or breaking glass panels, as we have designed the terminals to suit the prevalent climatic conditions,” an official of the firm said. “Also, as airports serve as the gateway for a city, we will showcase Chennai’s culture. We plan to have an array of murals and statues displaying classical and folk art. We have given priority to Tanjore paintings as well.”

But as part of the redesign, the overhauled airport will look like one large integrated terminal, and though the domestic and international sections will function separately, they will be connected internally. There is a tricky side to the plan — the domestic terminals will be located at either end, with the international terminal at the centre. This is because the existing domestic and international terminals will be modified to serve as domestic terminals, while the old Kamaraj and Anna International terminals will be demolished and together become a single international terminal at the centre of the facility.

Quite apart from the fact that Chennai-based passengers are accustomed to using the domestic terminal to the right of the airport, visitors to the city could also be left searching for gates with this unusual layout. Clear signage would therefore be especially important.

Other plans include a travelator, which was to have been part of the Phase I expansion but was dropped as part of cost-cutting measures in the ₹2,000 crore project. However, work began on a recently revived project for a travelator, ten years after it was first mentioned. This facility, estimated to cost ₹40 crore, will span a distance of 600 metres to connect the domestic and international terminals. It is expected to be completed in two months.

Multi-level car park
Like the travelator, this project was to have been part of the Chennai Airport’s Phase I expansion, too, but was shelved as authorities were not satisfied with the response from bidders. After a detailed study by research firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a multi-level car park is planned over 4.32 acres on either side of the Chennai Metro Rail Station at the airport. The parking lot, which will cost about ₹250 crore, can hold 750 vehicles on each side and will be opened in about 18 months.

A. Shankar, National Director-Strategic Consulting, JLL, says, “This is an interesting project, which has an innovative PPP (Public Private Participation) structure. There is also the opportunity for the development of multi-level car parking, along with space for integrated commercial development on a design-build-operate-maintain basis, providing construction-cum-licence to operate and maintain the facility.”

These expansion plans will not be adequate for the Chennai Airport over the longer term. The CAPA report says that despite maximising their capacity, airports like Chennai and Delhi will be saturated in 4-6 years. With plans for a second airport failing to get off the ground, the AAI has chalked out a new plan to have a satellite terminal near the remote bays of the Chennai Airport, to manage traffic when the modernised airport gets overcrowded.

Metro Rail connections
As the redesigned airport turns sleek and passenger-friendly, connectivity to public transport offered by Chennai Metro Rail would benefit thousands of passengers. Currently, the Airport Metro Rail Station, which provides direct connectivity from Little Mount and Nehru Park, carries about 2,500 commuters daily. This is likely to grow manifold when direct services from Chennai Central Railway Station to Chennai Airport begin in April 2018.

While the impressive plans give the impression that the Chennai Airport will be equipped with several sophisticated facilities, passengers want the authorities to mainly focus on a seamless transit. Sudhakar Reddy of the Air Passengers Association of India (APAI), says, “There should be more check-in counters, and more lines for the security check should be manned, because thousands of passengers wait endlessly in queues on a daily basis. Also, they should manage immigration and baggage collection more efficiently as, yet again, passengers are delayed to a great extent otherwise.”
Moreover, poor maintenance of toilets has been a constant complaint for years now. Even issues like poor Wi-Fi connectivity put off passengers who have long hours to kill before they can take a connecting flight.

Airway decongestion
Orders by Indian airline operators for new aircraft is expected to cross 1,000 units, making the country one of the largest buyers of aircraft in the world. Several airlines like Jet Airways and IndiGo have been placing orders for new aircraft. Significantly, many airlines favour narrow body aircraft, such as those from the French manufacturer ATR, to expand their network to Tier II cities. For instance, IndiGo recently ordered 50 ATR aircraft and has already begun serving destinations like Patna, Udaipur, Varanasi, Lucknow and Rajahmundry from Chennai. Apart from this, several low cost carriers have started flying additional routes as part of Regional Connectivity Scheme launched by the Centre.

To reduce congestion and bring down flight delays, the AAI also has plans to decongest airways and reduce flight delays. For a start, they have now begun cross-runway operations — where both the main and secondary runways are simultaneously oper
ated. This will increase aircraft movement from 36-42 an hour. However, it is not clear why cross-runway operations were recommenced now after 10 years. This may well be a pointless exercise as they would have to be stopped when construction for the redesigned airport begins in a few weeks from now.

Other plans to decrease congestion include straightening of the ‘Bravo’ taxiway and the construction of two rapid exit taxiways to reduce the time an aircraft stays on the runway. Although there has been progress by learning from the mistakes made in the Phase I of the project, there still seems quite a long way left to go.

As the CAPA report suggests, a body like the National Airports Commission should be formed to hold responsibility for preparing a National Airports Masterplan that frames long-term goals for better the planning, execution and working of airports. As far as passengers of the airport are concerned, it will be yet another round of putting up with inconveniences as construction and modification activities begin. Nevertheless, it may be well worth the trouble if the Phase II expansion results in a better, more user-friendly airport this time.

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