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Saturday Interview | ‘Airports faced Covid challenges’

Airports under RCS helped further GOI’s Covid vaccination programme

Soumyadip Mullick | Kolkata |

At a time when the pandemic has hit the Indian civil aviation sector hard, posing a challenge to continued passenger operations, the Regional Executive Director for Eastern Region of the Airports Authority of India, Mr MANOJ GANGAL speaks to Soumyadip Mullick about how the RCS scheme of the MoCA has been successful despite all odds.

Q. How challenging was it for AAI to ensure smooth flight operations in the Eastern region where states such as Bengal witnessed a record number of Covid cases?

A. Covid-19 has created challenges for AAI like all others in India and around the world. When all people were safeguarding themselves during lockdowns, AAI officials were working at airports, risking themselves in support of society. Strict Covid protocols had to be organised not only among AAI officials but also for passengers.

The challenges were much more for Air Traffic Controllers and officials of communication, navigation and surveillance who had to ensure safe aircraft operations in continental air space and over oceans, working day and night in a closed office environment. At one point in time, when our officials started getting unwell during the pandemic, we had to struggle hard to roster officials in such a manner that aircraft operations did not get impacted.

Q. Has the regional connectivity scheme (RCS) helped in executing GOI’s vaccination programme in the Eastern region by reaching vaccines to areas which earlier were inaccessible?

A. Yes, the success of vaccination programmes especially in the remotest areas of our country has been due to small airports like Jagdalpur, Bilaspur and Pakyong (Sikkim) in the Eastern region. The airports also supported us during extremely stressful times, by ensuring transportation of oxygen cylinders.

Q. With the pandemic affecting tourism, do you think there is any scope for increasing flight connectivity in the Eastern region?

A. The Eastern region, covering remote areas of our country has a huge scope and responsibility, a bit like Taubau, a remote place in China that has been the birthplace of Alibaba. The eastern region in times to come will write many success stories in linking up tier 2 and tier 3 cities with metros in the country helping in continuous economic development especially in the remotest areas.

Q. What are some of the major developments in the Eastern Region under RCS you would want to highlight?

A. Darbhanga airport in Bihar, operationalised in November 2020, has proved to be a trendsetter under the regional connectivity scheme in the Eastern region. The airport connects many districts in and around the Mithila region and has a catchment area extending to Nepal. To date, Darbhanga Airport has already witnessed passenger footfall of more than 1.5 lacs with 20 aircraft movements daily. It has also helped litchi farmers transport their products to metros like Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi etc., where the fruit has huge demand, thereby improving the agricultural economy in and around Darbhanga.

Jagdalpur airport in the remote Bastar district of Chhattisgarh was operationalised on 19 September 2020. The tiny airport provides connectivity to the city of Hyderabad from where many affluent passengers fly to Chattisgarh. The airport also attracts tourists from India. This boosts the tourism sector of the place. Bilaspur airport in Chhattisgarh was operationalised on 1 March 2021 under the Regional connectivity scheme. Bilaspur airport provides smooth air connectivity to Prayagraj, Jabalpur and also the capital of India for the movement of passengers.

Airports Authority of India under ER is moving at a great pace for connectivity at Bokaro, Rourkela, Dumka, Burnpur, Balurghat and Malda, as well as other fields in Kalaikunda and Hasimara.

Deoghar airport in Jharkhand will attract lacs of pilgrims every year on the operationalisation of the airport which is expected in the near future. The eastern region is also moving quickly towards the establishment and operationalisation of three water aerodromes in Andaman and Nicobar Islands in phase 3.1 of the Udaan scheme.

Q. Do you feel airports under RCS such as Dibrugarh and Darbhanga will be able to continue operations with enough passengers in the days to come?

A. Dibrugarh airport has been in operation for a long time. It provides air connectivity to Delhi, Guwahati, Kolkata, Imphal, Dimapur and Bangalore especially to first-time travellers under Udaan-RCS. Darbhanga airport, as I have said earlier, is a trendsetter airport under RCS connecting the Mithila region to various metros in the country.

Q. The West Bengal government has frequently claimed that airfields in Bengal such as Balurghat and Chara airstrip should be made functional for civil aviation while flight connectivity needs to be increased at Andal airport. Are there any plans for these under the RCS scheme?

A. Balurghat and Malda airports in West Bengal have been included in Udaan 4.1 for the bidding process of the RCS route. It is expected that airport connectivity would be established at these airports through coordination between the AAI and the government of West Bengal. Andal airport is under the category of private airport operations where air traffic services along with communication, navigation and surveillance are provided by the Airports Authority of India. The airport is continuously growing under a regional connectivity scheme and has the potential of being in competition with NSCBI airport, Kolkata.

Q. Any scope for connecting some major Eastern region airports such as NSCBI with flights to Europe? The WB CM has said on record there are many passengers in Bengal who travel on this route for mainly business purposes.

A. Presently because of Covid-19, international traffic movement at all airports in the country are on a wait and watch basis.