Flight to safety

In the mid-'70s, when it was decided that Shimla, as a popular holiday destination, should have an airport, finding a suitable patch of flat land proved difficult. Finally, Jubberhatti, a hill 22 km from town, was flattened and a table-top airport, almost similar to Mangalore, where a major aircrash left the country shaken, was built.

Three decades after the Shimla airport was built at an elevation of 5,065 ft, the safety aspect is getting attention, with Himachal keen on expanding the existing 3,800-ft airstrip to enable bigger planes to land and for better and reliable air-connectivity to the state.

Currently, only one flight of Kingfisher Airlines lands at the airport carrying 48 passengers, but on its return journey it cannot carry more than 28 passengers, as per safety norms. Unless the airstrip is expanded by at least another 500 ft, it is not possible for big aircraft to land.

Besides, there are practical difficulties in the operation and maintenance of the airport. The weather poses a problem during landing, not just in the winter months, but also in the monsoon and even in summer. "We are equipped with an aviation meteorological observatory for ensuring safety, but the weather can turn bad anytime and visibility can be reduced to less than 5,000 metres," says an Airports Authority of India (AAI) official. Manmohan Singh, Director, Meteorological Centre, Shimla, says,"The MET observatory at Shimla airport provides updates about wind direction, wind speed, visibility, air pressure, cloud density, type of clouds, rain, etc. — two dozen parameters which facilitate safe landing and take-off. The information is updated every half hour and pilots can also ask for special met reports if required mid-air."

Because of the low traffic, the Airport's Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower is open from 8.05 a.m. to 12.05 p.m, unless there are VVIP or private chartered flights landing at the airport. Till now, the Shimla airport hasn't seen a tragedy, although there have been a few aircrashes in the state, including one in 1994 in which the entire family of Punjab Governor Surinder Nath perished in the Parnsa valley in Mandi district.

Some of the upgradation measures taken up recently at the airport include installation of lights at the runway edges and a perimeter fence to make night landings easier. Yet, this is not enough and many flights are cancelled at the last minute or diverted to Chandigarh airport.

Former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, now Union Minister for steel, says, "The expansion of the airstrip is necessary not just for facilitating landing of bigger aircraft, but also to improve safety. The existing runway requires enforcement and extension by at least 500 ft." Two separate proposals have been submitted to the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation, which include restoration of the airport, its reinforcement and expansion. "Teams of AAI have already visited the airport and carried out inspections. We have been told that the AAI proposes to hire consultants to study the condition of the airport and suggest measures," says Manisha Nanda, Principal Secretary, Tourism and Civil Aviation, Himachal Pradesh.

Soil erosion is another issue--in the mid-'90s, it caused the shrinking of the airport by at least 300 ft. However, a massive plantation towards the edge of the airport and strengthening of boundaries and embankments helped in protecting the airstrip to a great extent.

Recent inspections done by the government reflect a requirement of at least Rs 970 crore to revamp the airport, including cutting down an adjacent hill to extend the runway. The state government is awaiting the ministry's response .Largely the opinion in the state government, and also the Airport Authority of India favours construction of a bigger airport, instead of making huge investments at the existing airport .

Himachal's other airports, at Bhuntar (Kullu) and Gaggal (Kangra), are in better shape. In fact, after the inauguration of a new air terminal at Bhuntar in 2008, the airport has sufficient parking for two aircraft at a time. Bhuntar airport is located on the banks of the river Beas,and in 1995, flash floods posed a danger to the runway, which survived the threat. Here too,the issue of expansion of the 3,800-ft runway has not been addressed.

Gaggal airport, which was opened to air traffic in 2007, is the best-equipped airport in Himachal Pradesh and perhaps also the most beautiful, with the majestic Dhauladhar ranges as the backdrop. Himachal is now exploring the possibility of sanctioning an international airport near Shimla in the Public-Private Partnership mode. Some leading infrastructure companies have also shown interest in build a modern airport of international standards in Himachal Pradesh.

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