April 2018: Fit for the future

Rajender Singh Lahauria, airport director, Airports Authority of India, tells Chloë Greenbank how he’s transforming Patna into a regional gateway fit for the 21st century.

India is witnessing a massive boom in air travel as its growing middle class increasingly takes to the skies. But the country’s airports (particularly its old, small regional hubs) are struggling to cope with the huge surge in passenger traffic.

“Our terminal was built with a capacity of half a million passengers,” says Rajender Singh Lahauria, airport director, Jayaprakash Narayan International Airport (also known as Patna Airport). “But there are more like 3 million passengers travelling to and from our airport each year,” he continues.

Originally destined to follow in the footsteps of his father and join the army, Lahauria divulges that having failed a medical he decided to study for an MSc in physics before joining the Airports Authority of India (AAI) in 1990 as an air traffic controller at Calcutta Airport. He was made director of Patna Airport three years ago. “It’s been a long tenure,” he says laughing.

India’s low-fare revolution

Located a few kilometres from Patna – the capital and largest city of the state of Bihar in India – the airport was built in the 1970s to handle just two passenger aircraft. But in recent years, the low-cost revolution has meant that passengers travelling to and from Patna have been able to take advantage of cheaper fares as well as better connectivity.

Since his election in 2014, India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has ensured that making air travel accessible to all is a key priority for his government and last year launched a scheme – Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik (UDAN ‘Let the common people fly’) – to connect remote regions in the country by air.

Modi’s efforts are paying off with traffic expected to exceed 300 million passengers in 2018 according to the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) India. But, as Lahauria points out, the country’s airport network is already bursting at the seams and on the verge of exceeding its maximum structural capacity. Patna, like many airports in the country, is already saturated and massively constrained by old infrastructure including a short runway, small terminal building and limited aircraft parking bays.

An airport for the future

Not one to shy away from a challenge, however, Lahauria has ambitious plans to bring Patna into the 21st century. They include expanding the terminal, extending the runway, and increasing the number of airport parking bays, as well as installing the latest passenger processing technology within the airport.

“The designs and plans are already finalised and signed off,” he says. “Building work will commence imminently and is expected to be completed in 2021, but in the meantime, there are some immediate improvements we can make to improve passenger flow and enhance operations.”

With an estimated price tag of around Rs 1,000 crore (£125 million), the redevelopment is being funded by the state government and Lahauria reveals that the new two-storey passenger terminal “will be a state-of the-art building with the capacity to handle 4.5 million passengers per annum.”

The first floor will be dedicated to departures, the ground floor will be for arrivals and the basement area will be given to airline offices and suppliers. Lahauria plans on partnering with SITA when it comes to implementing Common Use Terminals (CUTE) and Customer Self Service (CUSS) solutions in the new terminal.

There are also plans afoot to increase the short runway, which currently measures 2,072 metres. However, its practical usable length is further reduced from both the eastern and western approach due to various obstructions, including a historic clock tower, railway track and electricity lines.

The airport’s proximity to the city centre has also meant that acquiring additional land has been challenging, but Lahauria says that with support from the state government the airport will be allocated a further 11.7 acres of land.

While work at the airport is ongoing, Lahauria explains that small, but significant, changes have already been implemented to address passenger flow and minimise disruptions to flight schedules.

“To avoid a bottleneck of passengers within the terminal building we have implemented a system (known as D – 2) whereby travellers are only permitted inside the terminal two hours prior to their flight departing. Similarly, passengers aren’t allowed through security until one hour before their flight.”

Other initiatives have included redecorating inside the terminal and knocking down walls to optimise the available space and create a more aesthetically appealing environment for passengers. Temporary tents (which will eventually be replaced with permanent structures) have also been erected outside the terminal and airside to accommodate surplus passengers, and bollards have been installed outside the airport to ease traffic congestion at the entrance.

Round the clock operations

With air traffic expected to increase from 36 departures and 36 arrivals to 51 departures and 51 arrivals each day as of this month, Lahauria also introduced 24-hour operations at the airport at the end of March.

Additional measures he is taking to improve aircraft movements and avoid unnecessary delays is to increase and improve the layout of the aircraft parking bays. “At the moment the positioning of the four parking bays limits how and where aircraft can move. With the new layout we will have six bays that will be independent of each other, so aircraft won’t be restricted in their movements,” Lahauria says.

Once the new terminal is complete, route development and particularly long-haul operations will be a key focus for the airport, with Lahauria admitting that many of the carriers currently serving the airport are low-fare operators. “To help incentivise airlines the state government are going to reduce taxes on aviation turbine fuel,” he adds.

While there has been some negative feedback and coverage of the airport’s development plans, the reaction overall has been positive. “There was always going to be an element of delayed flights and traffic congestion reported in the press, but tourism and the local economy will benefit from the redevelopment of the airport and the local population understand that,” Lahauria says.

Despite the daily challenges that the team face at Patna, in terms of keeping operations running smoothly in a small, old terminal building while renovations are ongoing, Lahauria maintains that the future for Patna airport looks bright.

“Traffic growth has doubled in the past five years and when comparing data from the last to this financial year, passenger traffic has increased 33.3%. It’s phenomenal really,” he says, before concluding that the proof is in the pudding: “Two years back, Patna was non-profit making, but in the past two years that’s all changed and because of the growth in passenger traffic, it is now profit making.”

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