Panjim HERALD of May 5, 2008 , had an innocuous story on an inside page headlined “Domestic status for Dabolim!” The exclamation mark in the original seemed to suggest that the editors were on to something.The story was about a presentation, on the state’s transportation scene, made by Prof Edgar Ribeiro, a member of the Regional Planning 2021 Task Force. In it there is this crucial line: “The interim report .. talks about Dabolim as the secondary airport– as a domestic airport – once Mopa international is commissioned.” So what was the exclamation mark for? The Editors aren’t saying anything but plenty of portents are there for Goa , if one takes a close look at the implications, as we do below.
On the face of it, this may be a significant improvement over the provisions of Union Cabinet Resolution 2000 which mandated theoutright closure of Dabolim civil enclave upon the commissioning of Mopa (pre-dating the agreements for Bangalore ’s and Hyderabad ’s new airports). But while there may now be a “stay on execution”, Goa will have to contend with the real risk of Dabolim’s “death from natural causes” i.e. due to plane disuetude. In the case of humans in Goa , such deaths (as alleged in the cases of Scarlett Keeling and Lt Kuzmin of the Moscow Police) are sometimes cover-ups for foul play. So caution needs to be exercised to ensure that 'negligence”(deliberate or inadvertent) does not lead to Dabolim civil enclave’s premature closure.
By way of brief background, the latest civil aviation ministry policy on greenfield airports (like Mopa), which are within 150 km of another airport (like Dabolim civil enclave), emphasizes that the interaction effects would be carefully considered. What is the effect of one airport (the existing one) on the operations and profitability of the other (the new one)? They are no longer mere boxes which can be moved in a chart or removed from it. In the present instance, a simple label (“international”) seems to have been detached from the Dabolim box and affixed to the one on Mopa. Why? There is absolutely no explanation in the HERALD story.
At this point it is possible to suggest a litmus test which will clear the air of any doubts.It should be established unambiguously that, by virtue of the award of “International” to Mopa, courtesy Edgar Ribeiro, Dabolim does not lose the right to the use of its present ICAO code, GOI, where “I” possibly stands for “international”.
Something like this happened to Hyderabad ’s HYD (although by prior agreement among the parties concerned) when Begumpet civil enclave closed and HIA opened recently. In fact, due to this curious procedure, the ATC services for the new airport are actually still being provided by the old one, 40 km away! There may well be a similar problem brewing at Bangalore though nothing has been mentioned on these lines yet in the media. Hence when the GOI code goes to Mopa then the Navy may well continue to run ATC for Mopa – from Dabolim! Is this acceptable? Clearly, it should not be.
If an assurance is NOT provided upfront that Mopa will have a separate ICAO code and ATC of its own, then the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Historic Dabolim civil enclave, a highly convenient civilian transportation node, is headed for the dumps (except for its ATC) and the Ribeiro panel would be an accomplice in a plane charade against Goa .
Now let us consider the status of “international” flights at Dabolim in detail. The scheduled international flights are sparse (even less so now after the recent discontinuation of some national carrier flights to the Gulf). How will it matter if these practically non-existent flights are transferred to Mopa? What earthly purpose will this inconsequential transfer serve?
Then there is the more pertinent matter of charter flights. These are potentially salient because Goa is believed to account for the bulk of India ’s international charters. They amount to an ostensibly impressive number of about 700-800 a year at Dabolim. Even if the period is taken as 6 months’ tourism season, they result in only about 4 flights per day! What kind of “international” airport would Mopa be with 1 or 2 scheduled international flights per day (at best) and about 4 charter flights per day (that too during the season)? Parenthetically, at present the charter flights are accommodated at Dabolim on weekends (see below) and perhaps during night hours on other days. So Dabolim would go very, very quiet on weekends.
In fact there is a rather insidious implication of granting “international” status to Mopa on flimsy grounds as outlined above. It may be to enable the existing over-designed Mopa airport blue-print, a Rs 1300 crore mega-project (courtesy ICAO), to go ahead unchanged given the aura surrounding so-called “international airports”.Anything international has got to be big, right? The actual need in the light of the discussion above is to begin from scratch and determine (a) the minimum size for Mopa at start-up and (b) a viable business model for it when (c) Dabolim is operating in tandem.. There has been no significant move to scrap the ICAO plan so far to start a fresh process like this.
To return to the Ribeiro plan, what kind of surface connectivity issues would be posed for people from Goa (especially from the south) who want to catch (the rare) scheduled international flights out of Mopa in the north? Then there is the related question of what kind of competition issues (especially of the cross border “Sindhudurg” type) would be posed for South Goa hotels by charter flights operating only from Mopa? Does the Ribeiro plan have the blessings of the Hoteliers Association of South Goa (HASG)? This should have been cited up front.
As for the proposed domestic specialization at Dabolim, how is this aided by the continuation of slot restrictions (for military flight training) for four and a half hours every weekday morning? Shuttle flights would find the, hopefully, completely free slot regime (assuming NO Naval ATC!) at Mopa much more convenient. Once surface connectivity problems are sorted out (say by four-laning NH-17 etc) there may be a clamour for domestic flights (currently to the tune of about 40 a day) to shift too.
The end-result would be that nothing would be left for Dabolim civil enclave to do and it would quietly slip completely into military hands! Wouldn’t this go against the Goa government’s wish for two airports in the state, hopefully in perpetuity, assuming peace prevails? In fact Goa should be setting the lead for the country’s novel bid for “an airport in every district”.
To sum up, the mis-steps looming over Goa ’s Mopa airport need to be cleared urgently and with elan or else they will pose a serious long term menace not only to Dabolim airport but to Goa ’s economy too.