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Budget airports may transport you to an era long lost

Flying today is inconceivable without body scans, x-rayed baggage, conveyor belts, aerobridges and interminable waits. But a crop of budget airports India is planning to build in small towns will transport flyers to a more graceful era where you could walk into an airport minutes before a flight, check in your own luggage, and walk on to the tarmac to board a turboprop.

The Airports Authority of India has a plan for 50 airports across 11 states that includes barbed wire, not boundary walls; people handling baggage, and not machines; a shorter check-in time to keep lounges small; and local cops instead of the more expensive Central Industrial Security Force. And, no food kiosks.

“Traffic is unlikely to be heavy at these airports. The purpose is to create the minimum facilities for aircraft to operate without compromising on safety and security,” said an official, confirming the plans had been frozen.

Air-conditioning-hungry steel-and-glass structures are out. The terminals will be lean so that passengers can directly step out of the airport on arrival. Clean drinking water and toilets figure in the plans, though.

All these bring down costs by 50 per cent. A terminal can be built for as little as Rs 50 crore. Its modular framework can be added to, if traffic grows.

Amber Dubey, partner and India head of aerospace and defence at KPMG, says: “The no-frills airport should be on a ‘railway station plus’ model, without compromising on safety and security. The focus should shift from security of the airport to security of the aircraft. The approach has to change from visible security to smart security, using CCTV and a small quick-reaction security team. There is no need for costly air-navigation equipment; that can be provided remotely by larger airports.”

“We have to take inspiration from the US, where only 5,000 of the 15,000 airports have paved runways. It manages to keep the costs low without compromising on safety and security. The district authorities in the US use the airport as a facilitator of local business and not as business itself,” Dubey adds.

A few weeks ago secretaries of key infrastructure ministries met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One of the decisions taken was that the Airports Authority of India would begin building five no-frills airports before next March.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto talks of the “potential for (developing) inland air transportation to various remote and local locations in the country. Such air strips will be developed so that low-cost air travelling becomes possible within the country.”

The United Progressive Alliance had last year identified 50 new airports in Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Five of these will be taken up as a pilot project by the aviation ministry.

The government intends to rope in the private sector to build these airports. Rules will have to be changed for this and the aviation watchdog will need more teeth.

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