The Run-Away Runway 


Akhil Kochhar

The city of Patna is abuzz with the latest sensational topic of debate i.e. the future of the Jai Prakash International Airport. Being a frequent flyer to and from Patna since a child, I have been feeling a strange connection to this subject and a strong urge to give my two cents on this matter. 

It was just last week that on boarding a surprisingly empty Patna-bound Indigo flight from Delhi I realized the damaging impact of this issue on travellers, when an inquisitive fellow-passenger, perhaps bored and looking to start a conversation, suddenly blurted “According to last week’s Economic Times, the Patna airport is not safe.” I quickly gathered that he wasn’t a frequent visitor to Patna. I confess I was a bit bored myself and seeing an opportunity for a little harmless fun I really could not resist pulling his leg. So putting on an alarmed expression, I exclaimed, “Yes! In fact it has been termed ‘highly dangerous’. They were supposed to cut off some trees to make way for our landing. If it’s not done by the time we reach, our lives might be in danger.” He almost jumped off the flight! It took me fifteen minutes to calm his nerves down while I desperately tried to control my laughter. Finally I managed to convince him that I have been flying to Patna for three decades and barring just one incident (the Alliance Air 7412, that crashed in 2000) there was really nothing to worry about. We departed with a hearty laugh. 

Since this matter concerns all air travellers and citizens of Bihar, I believe that everyone is entitled to express their opinion; especially now that this perplexing debate has hit almost every dinner conversation in the city and perhaps even certain parts of the country.  

Let’s take a look at a few undisputed facts: 

1. The Patna airport does not have Runway End Safety Area or RESA which is crucial incase an aircraft overshoots the runway. Now due to reduced runway length, the airport comes under the category ‘3C’, which only allows the use of smaller aircrafts such as the ATR  & CRJ. 

2. There are trees on both sides of the runway thus affecting the approach funnel i.e. the specified airspace around a nominal approach path and within which an aircraft should approach the ground while landing in order to make a normal approach. We are all well aware of this because that’s the time we usually skip a heartbeat or two during a last few seconds of approach. 

3. The AAI has decided to reduce the length of the runway from 1677 m to 1141 m from the Phulwari side and to 1289m from 1820 m from the Patna zoo side. The ideal runway length for an Air Bus 320 & a Boeing 737 is 1540 m & 1790 m respectively and anything less is considered dangerous. 

According to the latest information available, after the Prime Minister has intervened, the AAI has agreed to keep August 31, 2012 as the maximum cut-off date for the state government to remove the obstacles causing problems in safe landing and take-off of planes at the Jai Prakash International Airport. 

In these limited number of days, corrective measures need to be taken such as pruning and felling of trees, dismantling or shortening the height of the man-made obstacles in and around the approach funnel near the airport. 

The point is that even though every effort is made to make this airport ‘safe’, would it be feasible for travelers in the long run? The safety issue may linger on for eternity, in addition to this that fact that it’s a smaller airport compared to the other airports in the country. Even the airport’s extreme proximity to the city may pose as a problem. 

With the steady rise of travellers, tourism, business and development, eventually there will come a time when we will have to consider other options for the Patna Airport. Some of the optional locations which are currently doing the rounds are Bihta, Bikram and Nalanda. 

Let’s consider Bihta as a case in question. It is a non-flying base of the Indian Air Force and is used occasionally only when the need arises. Bihta has issues of its own i.e. the runway will need re-carpeting if heavy commercial aircrafts were to operate from it. Additional lands would also need to be purchased in order to create a taxi track and to construct a new terminal as well (This would also be necessary even in the case of the current Patna airport) 

Now moving to the option of Nalanda, where the AAI has recently given permission might make the situation politically charged.  As this is the constituency of the chief minister, the opposition cries fowl.  Although there is no doubt that an airport in Nalanda would give the entire district a face-lift, but travellers need to have superior connectivity. Even the expenses that will have to be incurred, keeping in mind the ever-soaring fuel prices, would make air travel out-of-reach for many of the current travellers. 

Along with this, the land at Nalanda will also have to be acquired. We are all aware of the many ways in which land acquisition in India can go wrong. Especially considering the fact that a new airport would require an estimated 1500 acres and the cost associated with that is unthinkably massive. The new Bangalore airport is located 40 km outside the city connected with a beautiful expressway, yet it takes an hour or perhaps two during rush hour traffic. Since Nalanda is 75 km from the city, the time taken to reach and make travelling seem like a gruelling task and the distance significantly far for comfort. Lets also keep in mind that the Bangalore airport handles 9.7 million passengers each year as appose to the Patna airport which handles 1.09 million ( approx).  

According to a senior state BJP leader Bikram is the best suited option as it is much closer to the city of Patna and with the recent construction of bridges across the Ganges, this maybe a good option. This may prove to be a more practical choice as it would keep the airport relevantly well connected to the city.  

This airport debate has got me thinking on different lines as well. First and foremost it shows the constant difference of opinions between the State and Centre governments (representing different political parties). It also reveals the poor level of infrastructure and planning in the state where two semi-operating airports exist simultaneously (Patna & Bihta) and neither of which are adding value to the state or country. 

Spare a minute to think of the tourist or investor travelling to Bihar and who directly contributes to the State’s growth. In the middle of all this chaos are we forgetting them? Is Brand Bihar taking a beating ? Tourism is one industry that has experienced a positive rise since our present government has taken over and it is an important revenue source to the state. Also with the increase of tourists, Bihar’s image has also been experiencing a positive change. The economy of the State which can only enhance with progress and development and for this to happen travelling will play a pivotal role. 

Yes, we do not know what will be the outcome, at the end of the deadline set by AAI. Nor do we know what the best decision is yet or how it will be resolved. We just know that a problem exists and a solution is needed. In this time of uncertainty if we recall the many achievements made by the state of Bihar in the recent years i.e. building over 2,100 bridges, construction of more than 6,800 kilometres of roads, achieving double digit growth consistently for the past five years to name a few, we will realize we have nothing to worry about. Keeping the above facts in mind we are hopeful that the safest and best decision will soon be made, that would be in the best interest for the state and its people.

The views expressed in this report are purely those of the author.


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