After a high, Amritsar airport falls on bad days

November 14th, 2008 - 12:39 pm ICT by IANS  

Amritsar, Nov 14 (IANS) Touted till recently as competition to Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA), Rajasansi Airport in this Sikh holy city has fallen on bad days and faces the threat of virtual closure with international and domestic airlines pulling out flights.Till recently, the airport was catering to nearly 100 flights per week.

Last year the airport, which is very popular among non-resident Indians (NRIs), catered to nearly 600,000 passengers. Nearly 490,000 of these passengers were international fliers.

Now, however, Rajasansi Airport seems to have fallen on bad days with many airlines, including Singapore Airlines, announcing closure of operations from the airport due to an overall slump in the aviation sector, high landing costs and lack of adequate facilities here.

This has been reflected in the the flights per week going down by 20 percent. A drastic fall in passenger traffic is expected from January next year if airlines close operations from the airport.

For landing at Rajasansi Airport, the civil aviation ministry is charging Rs.154,000 per flight in Amritsar from Singapore Airlines as compared to Rs.75,000 charged by the Delhi airport. Similarly, Jet Airways is shelling out Rs.94,000 as landing fee for domestic flights compared to Rs.69,000 paid in Delhi.

It is estimated that nearly 30 percent of the total passenger traffic to the IGI airport comes from Punjab alone; so there is plenty of scope for the airport here to grow.

But airlines and passengers have been complaining of poor facilities at Rajasansi Airport despite so many international flights operating from here. The expansion of the airport, which was to be completed by last month, is nowhere near completion.

Luggage trolleys are in a bad condition, forcing passengers to hire coolies. Facilities for passengers inside the terminal are also not of international standards.

Amritsar is home to ‘Harmandar Sahib’ (Golden Temple - the holiest of Sikh shrines that has a thick layer of pure gold sheet on the outer side of its walls) and is visited by millions of devotees annually.

Newer airlines like Malaysia’s Air Asia, which had recently shown interest in operating from here, have also pulled back for now, airport officials said.

Concerned over the airport’s future, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal and Amritsar Lok Sabha MP Navjot Singh Sidhu have taken up the matter with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who hails from this city, and Union Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel.

The civil aviation ministry Tuesday announced that a high-level five-member committee would look into the problems of the airport here.

“It is the fastest growing airport in the country. With cargo operations starting, the airport will see even more fights. Last year, Amritsar beat Goa and Ahmedabad in terms of international passenger growth,” airport director Arun Talwar recently told IANS.

“Rajasansi Airport is one of the oldest airports in the country that became operational in 1949 with a service of Afghan airlines. It was upgraded to the status of an international airport to decongest the Delhi airport. The landing fee needs to be rationalized and adequate facilities should be provided at the airport,” Sidhu said in his memorandum to Patel.

Punjab’s Information and Public Relations Minister Bikram Singh Majithia has asked all political leaders in the state to rise above political affiliations to save the airport.

“It is imperative for all of us to ensure that trade and economy of Punjab are not hit due to sudden stoppage of international flights to Rajasansi Airport,” Majithia said.

Critics of the ruling Akali Dal, however, blame the party for the condition of the airport.

“How many times has Parkash Singh Badal, Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal or even MP Navjot Sidhu taken an international flight from Amritsar? They are the ones who have failed to promote the airport,” Congress legislator Jassi Khangura said.

Compared to the number of passengers it was catering to just a decade ago - 22,190 in 1997-98 - Amritsar’s flight plan took off in 2002-03 with over 178,000 passengers in that year. In 2006-07, the passenger number touched 596,228. In just four years, the passenger growth was nearly three and a half times. Aircraft movement, which was 1,864 in 2002-03, touched 5,754 in 2006-07.

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