In this special piece for this website, the Phil Thomas points out how Goa may be India’s biggest tourism magnet, but its airport remains under the control of the Indian Navy and cannot be developed.
Great Wall of Goa
By Phil Thomas
Goa is the biggest tourism magnet, and a recent newspaper report (May 27) had blithely recommended that the State should go in for an airport that can land the giant A380, which is India’s largest aircraft carrier at a a greenfield site.It suggested that the airport could be developed at Mopa in Goa by 2014!
If this is seriously pursued, it can cause incalculable harm to Goa's already distorted aviation scene by further skewing the badly needed efforts to improve it. In fact a careful look at the vexed problem of Goa's aviation scenario may shed useful light on the overall national problem of urgently updating our airport infrastructure.
Goa's sole airport, Dabolim in the south, is controlled since the early 1960s by the Navy which places unrealistic restrictions on a tourism oriented facility in the name of interminably training a couple of squadrons of pilots for carrier based fighter operation using obsolescent and tricky Sea Harriers.
As you may be aware, the Navy has recently commissioned a mammoth base called Project Seabird at Karwar about 100 km south of Goa in Karnataka. The ostensible purpose of this project is to decongest Mumbai harbour. However there is no commensurate will to decongest Dabolim airport for civilian flight purposes i.e. by shifting military flight training etc to Seabird or even other places. The air station there is still only on paper, awaiting financial and other high level clearances. It could become a reality in the next phase of the project. Its another matter that the Karwar terrain is not all that suitable for any airflield which is much more than of minimal
In the mean time, Dabolim has been "booked" for training pilots of MIG29Ks which have recently been acquired along with an old Russian aircraft carrier. These carrier based fighters are said to be the first to be ordered by any Navy in the world. So the prospect of the Navy easing up on civilian flight restrictions at Dabolim in the foreseeable future are quite dim.
That's why I call the military presence at Dabolim airport the Great Wall of Goa! The only way out may be to push for joint military/civilian management which is not unheard of abroad in places like the U.S. But where will the push for this come from? But more on this later. Lets first look at Mopa, the recommended alternative site for the greenfield project.
For the past couple of years, a proposal has been doing the rounds for a greenfield airport at Mopa in North Goa. There is natural resistance to this for several reasons. First, it is feared that once Mopa is ready then civilian flghts at Dabolim will have to cease. There are several precedents for this. This happened at the Navy air station in Kochi when the public/private greenfield airport called CIAL came up nearby a few years ago. The same thing is due to occur at HAL controlled Bangalore airport when the new BIAL comes up in 2-3 years time.
A discontinuation of civilian flights like this would always be a boon for the military which would naturally prefer a free run at its bases. It is another matter whether the Navy, whose essential armament is carrier based aircraft, really needs an airport with a mammoth 11,000 foot runway which is fit for jumbo jets (including perhaps the A380 after a suitable upgrade of the type you described). Thus Dabolim at present, you will appreciate, is a purely dog-in-the-manger situation.
On the other hand, Mopa would cut into the business of South Goa hotels which depend heavily on international chartered and scheduled domestic flights at close-in Dabolim. There is also a strong hunch in Goa that Mopa would only give a much needed boost to emerging competitor resorts in southern Maharashtra. In fact the INDIAN EXPRESS article of May 27 graphically shows links to offbeat places like Ratnagiri, Kolhapur, Sindhudurg etc from Mopa, while ostensibly emphasising an aircraft(A380)which is meant for hub-to-hub international travel.
Low Cost Aviation
Now that India has finally caught the low cost aviation bug there may be some hope for beleaguered civil aviation at Dabolim. It is beginning to be realised that there is a need for more functioning airports including multiple facilities for big cities. (Note that Goa can be usefully viewed as a "city state"). In Mumbai the AAI is bitterly regretting having parted with Juhu airport to the BMC thirty years ago for road building purposes. There is talk of reopening Bangalore and Hyderabad airports even when BIAL and HIAL are operational. Even the Kochi naval airport is being eyed again for civilian use! But all this may be wishful thinking now.
At Pune, however, industry bigwigs have succeeded in getting the IAF to substantially increase the watch hours (by 40% from 10 hours to 14 hours per day) at Lohegaon airport. In stark contrast to the Navy at Dabolim, the Air Chief has even made reassuring comments about sharing "national assets" like airports. But at Pune the real test will come when the new Chakan airport is promoted in a few years time. In any event, the urgent need for effective joint use and management of military air bases is clearly underlined in the present vexatious scenario.
In view of the foregong, it is odd that in the face of the severe bottlenecks we are reportedly facing at our airports there is this persistent blindspot about the fundamental source of problems there viz. the military controls which apparently account for a substantial part of the constraints faced. As many as 25 airports have such constraints. In addition air space restrictions by the military such as at Delhi create their own problems for aircraft movements. All these may well be the result of "holy cow" treatment of military matters by the civilian authoriities all along.
Without enlightened review and response to civilian imperatives proactively by the military itself (except where it suits its own purposes) the only options for Indian aviation are either to burn precious fuel while waiting for slots to open up or keep capital assets idle on the ground or go in for costly and time consuming greenfield airport projects with their attendant risks of humungous land scams. All this only militates against the diffusion of low cost aviation which is the need of the hour in a big and populous country like India with low but now rapidly growing purchasing power.
The Policy Imperative
There clearly seems to be an urgent need for a high level review of the military controls in important airports like Goa and the expeditious dismantling of flight restrictions on civilian flights subject of course to the usual needs for sensible security safeguards) and the establishment of
procedures for effective joint use and management.
If such a review is conducted and implemened then perhaps Seabird will get expedited, the Navy will cut back at Dabolim, Mopa can come up (not as a pie in the sky A380 airport but something more practical and prompt). And the Goan economy and society would benefit immeasurably -- as would the larger Indian scene as a whole.