Bengaluru: Last week, the Karnataka cabinet decided that its concession agreement with the Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) for the Kempegowda International Airport would be extended by 30 years if the firm revives and starts operating the city’s old Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Airport too.
The HAL airport, located in the city centre, was shut down in 2008 when the Kempegowda airport started functioning in Devanahalli on the outskirts of the city. There has been a long-standing demand to revive the HAL airport for passenger convenience.
However, the agreement signed between the Ministry of Civil Aviation and BIAL stated that all civilian flights to and from HAL airport would stop the moment the new airport started functioning on 30 March 2008. Another clause stated that no rival commercial airport would be allowed to function in a 150-km radius of the new for a 25-year period — until May 2033.
Currently, the HAL airport is only used for military, chartered and VIP flights. However, Deputy Chief Minister C.N. Ashwath Narayan told ThePrint that if everything goes according to plan, the HAL airport can handle domestic/short haul flights, reducing the pressure on the Kempegowda airport.
“The option given by the government to BIAL to run the HAL airport means it will have to waive off the clause disallowing any commercial airport to function in the 150-km radius,” he said.
BIAL has not yet reacted to the government’s new offer, and declined to give an official response when contacted by ThePrint through phone calls.
Why HAL airport was shut
The HAL airport was in commercial use for 28 years from 1980 to 2008, and was managed by the Airports Authority of India (AAI). It was used for both international and domestic flights.
However, the IT boom meant there was increased air travel to and from Bengaluru, and the HAL airport, which could just handle six flights at a time, began to struggle. Passenger footfall shot up from 36 lakh passengers per annum to 85 lakh by the end of 2007, and because the airport was surrounded by residential complexes, there was no scope to extend the runway or expand the infrastructure.
This is why 4,000 acres of land were allotted in Devanahalli outside the city for the development of a spacious new international airport.
However, the Kempegowda International Airport’s birth wasn’t complication-free. There were massive protests demanding that HAL Airport remain open. A PIL was filed in the Karnataka High Court, saying the government had failed to provide adequate infrastructure. The HC gave the go-ahead just hours before the official launch of the new airport.
Why people want HAL Airport reopened
The major reason why the demand to reopen the HAL airport has been gaining momentum is the distance from the city centre to the Kempegowda International Airport — about 40 km. Given the distance and Bengaluru’s congested roads, many passengers end up missing flights.
Another problem is the lack of low-cost public transport to and from Kempegowda airport. There is no metro link, so passengers have to take taxis or buses. And depending on where they want to travel to, that could cost between Rs 800-1,500 by taxi or Rs 250-400 by bus. The cost is compounded by the additional toll fee of Rs 90 to enter the aiport — India’s third-busiest airport by passenger traffic and aircraft movement.
Conversely, the HAL airport stands near the city centre, and even though the roads around it were struggling to take the load of vehicles before it closed, its accessibility is considered an advantage for passengers.
Karnataka’s Chief Secretary T.M. Vijay Bhaskar had told the media earlier this year that the government wanted to use HAL for short-haul flights. “Our thinking is that domestic flights up to a distance of 500 km can be operated from here, so that the public stands to benefit from it,” he had said.
Talks about reopening
In January this year, talks about the revival of the old airport began again between the three main stakeholders — the Karnataka government, HAL and BIAL.
But the talks failed as BIAL stood its ground that reopening the HAL Airport would bring down its revenue collection, government sources said.
“That is why we have suggested that BIAL take over the operations of HAL. There will be conflict, as they claim, and Bengaluru will benefit from it,” said a government official who did not wish to be identified.
“One more aspect to be considered is that during the Aero Show, held biennially, the airport operations get hugely affected. The Aero Show is important for the state, so HAL could take the pressure off during that time,” the official added.
However, Capt. G.R. Gopinath, who founded India’s first low-cost carrier Air Deccan and was one of the people behind the PIL demanding that the HAL Airport remain open, reiterated the stance that the HAL airport and Kempegowda airport must compete, and that asking BIAL to run both airports would only make it a larger monopoly.
“HAL must open as before under AAI or some other operator, and it must compete with BIAL. Monopolies either of the public or private sector are against the interest of consumers,” Gopinath told ThePrint.