The recent incident of an Air India ATR flight from Silchar to Guwahati landing under emergency circumstances at the Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport has again brought to the fore the precarious condition of the air services connecting Silchar with the rest of the country.
|The airline parking bay of Silchar airport (Photo Courtesy: www.wikipedia.com)|
The rail and road connections to Barak Valley have been in pathetic state for last two decades now. In fact, the condition is gradually deteriorating year after year with no hope of any immediate improvement at sight. The air services, somehow, evoke more optimism among the people, as the civil aviation sector comes under the central government with no interference from the state. Moreover, our unscrupulous netas also travel by air and therefore, we can at least hope that they would be more proactive to improve the air connectivity of the region.
However, an assessment of the current state of affairs reveals that this optimism is grossly misplaced. There are innumerable problems surrounding the aviation sector also with no immediate solution available.
The primary problem surrounding the air services here, which has also been highlighted in an article on this blog earlier, is the inadequacy of the number of flights connecting Silchar with the other important cities of the country. Silchar has a couple of flights everyday from Kolkata along with an Air India Airbus that flies to this remote town four times a week. This apart, there are absolutely no connections to any location outside the north east.
There are two flights to Guwahati a day, which in total can accommodate only about 140 passengers, which is grossly inadequate. The other flights to regional locations such as Agartala, Imphal and Tezpur makes Silchar the fourth busiest airport in the north east, but how much these contribute in terms of providing the necessary connectivity with the rest of the country is debatable.
The timing of the flights also leave a lot to be desired. The Air India and Jet Konnect ATR flights from Kolkata to Silchar leave very early in the morning. Therefore, passengers coming from other cities to take a flight to Silchar from Kolkata have to depend on the afternoon Air India Airbus that flies only four times a week. The Air India flight from Guwahati to Silchar also leaves very early again posing the same problem.
Concern For Silchar tried to get in touch with the authorities of all the private airlines asking them whether they had any plans to start new services to Silchar. Unfortunately, we received absolutely no response from any one of them. In the last six months, the cash strapped Kingfisher Airlines has also discontinued its services from Silchar to Kolkata and Imphal, which has further added to the woes of the people.
What queers the pitch further is the fact that Dibrugarh has two direct flights to Delhi, while Jorhat has one flight to Bengaluru. Imphal and Agartala have innumerable flights to all the major cities of the country. So, what stops the airline companies from starting services connecting Silchar is indeed a mystery.
The Civil Aviation Ministry is also planning to promote Dibrugarh as an aviation hub. Locals in Dibrugarh claim that local MP and Union Minister Pawan Singh Ghatowar has taken a lot of pains to arrange direct flights from Delhi and promote his town as an aviation centre. Unfortunately, the severe leadership crisis and vacuum engulfing Barak Valley has ensured that there are no leaders of stature to speak for us at any platform, be it the parliament or the state assembly.
Another major issue hindering the improvement of air services to Silchar is the inadequate infrastructure at the airport. The departure lounge, at best, looks like a large apartment which becomes extremely crowded if two flights are to take off one after another. The presence of only one baggage scanner further adds to the chaos. Even if a new airline plans to start services, where would they install their counters, as there is absolutely no space left after the counters of Air India and Jet Airways.
The Instrument Landing System, that facilitates the movement of flights after sunset has been installed at the airport long back and the Air Force aircrafts are also availing this facility, but there are no efforts to allow the civil flights to land or take off after dark. This has seriously paralysed the regularity and frequency of flights as services that get delayed, often have to be cancelled due to bad light. Apparently, the Air Force authorities are not too keen to allow night landing at the airport, but in the larger interest of the people, our leaders have to lobby extremely hard to get the night landing nod soon.
In 2010, expressions of interest were invited for the empanelment of architectural firms for the designing of a new 7400 sqm passenger terminal at the Silchar Airport. However, almost three years have elapsed since that notification and no action has been noticed regarding the overhauling of the terminal building at Silchar. In the mean time, new swanky airport terminals have come up at Dibrugarh and Shillong, which have much lesser air traffic compared to Silchar. Interestingly, AAI Update, a newsletter published by the Airport Authority of India (AAI) features a query by an AAI official posted in Silchar about the expansion plans of the airport. Let us hope at least he has got the answer to his query as the common man is still in dark about the future plans.
The other important issue is the condition of the aircrafts that fly to Silchar. While we are not aviation engineers and therefore, not qualified to comment about the technical condition of the planes, the external look of some of the planes, especially the ATRs used by Air India, do not evoke any confidence at all. The incident that took place last week only further strengthens our aspersions.
After the miraculous escape of the 48 passengers aboard Air India flight 9760 last week, our leaders have become active. Silchar MP Kabindra Purkayastha and state minister Siddique Ahmed have written to Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh demanding the overall improvement of the air services to Barak Valley. Let us hope that the minister takes cognizance of the concerns shown by the leaders and takes some urgent measures to improve the state of affairs.