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Modernisation brooks no delay

Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel has reiterated the Government of India's commitment to speeding up the modernisation of airports, starting with Delhi and Mumbai. The global consultant/technical advisor is expected to submit his report evaluating the private bids for these two major airports, after which the inter-ministerial group and the Empowered Group of Ministers (EgoM) will make the final assessment. Mr. Patel has promised to complete by mid-December the whole process leading up to clearance by the Cabinet. Once the redevelopment of Delhi and Mumbai airports gets under way, the process of getting similar projects for Kolkata and Chennai airports is also expected to be set in motion next year. Given the `Open skies' policy being pursued by the Centre and the rush of international airlines to India, it is imperative to get the aviation infrastructure in place before a major crisis erupts on the ground. Add to this the burgeoning domestic aviation sector, with a new airline launching operations almost every month in the recent period. The scenario at the major and smaller airports within the next year or two can be imagined in the context of the current growth in traffic, and this makes it imperative for the Centre to implement a massive airports development and modernisation programme before it gets too late. For their part, the airlines must look at the maintenance and operation needs of their fleet of aircraft — at least in a joint venture format that would avoid duplication of facilities.

The proposal to let the Airports Authority of India (AAI) raise Rs. 6,000 crore for the upgradation of non-metro airports — some 35 of them have been identified — needs to be cleared urgently. The Planning Commission and the Centre must hammer out a formula to enable the AAI, which runs the airports, to not only get the required funds but also complete the redevelopment of all these airports. With the new, private airlines connecting people and non-metro centres such as Pune, Chandigarh, Coimbatore, and Visakhapatnam, the urgency of modernising and upgrading them can hardly be overemphasised. The recent experience during the closure of Mumbai and Visakhapatnam airports should drive home this message. While the idea of involving private investors or a consortium can be encouraged for the major, metropolitan airports, it may be wiser and cost effective — for all concerned — to let the AAI take up the work on the non-metro airports. But it must be designed for the future. In the context of the fare wars and no-frills aviation, the landing charges for the airlines and the user charges for its facilities, including those payable by the passengers, have to be kept at affordable levels and this can be better managed by the AAI than the private sector. Now that Mr. Patel has outlined a framework, he must ensure that the aviation infrastructure in the country meets the needs of the 21st century.

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