Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bangalore Airport - Daylight Dacoity

I suspect I'll get some heat for my rant here, but here me out.

For those of us who are celebrating the imminent opening of the Bangalore International Airport as a truly Indian achievement, the delays and the recent AAI strike should sober us down a bit, or at least get people thinking. The fact that the consortium wanted to pen the airport when the even runway and ATC were not completed should be a big concern. The strike may very well have been too little too late, and was probably politically motivated. After all, who can forget the eons it took to get the project off the ground, so much so that even the Prime Minister and Infosys Narayanamurthy had to intercede on its behalf.

But behind all that cheer about us getting an Indian Changi, and how efficient the new airport will be, its just a dream of mirrors. Heres why:

1. Commute - The airport is 40 km away from the city centre. Imagine how much that will cost per person. The planned airport shuttle train from High Grounds will cost Rs. 250 per person.

If you wish to take a taxi, its 29 km from High grounds, and 45 from J.P. Nagar side. Now multiply that two way, and you can see your pockets lighter by 600-1000 Rs. It might be slightly cheaper by Auto, but it wouldn't really matter.

You cant really expect to travel by bus with all the luggage, but even then, there should be some shuttle bus service, shouldn't there? Well guess what; there is. BMTC will provide bus service from different points in the city. The catch of course is the cost- It will cost 135 Rs to get from South Bangalore to the Airport. A taxi will cost Rs 600. Obviously, its the same cost if you're travelling with friends or family. And if you're flying low cost carriers, you may very well end up spending the same cost getting to the airport itself.

The road itself isn't that bad, as made out to be. There is a pretty good 6-lane Highway all the way to the airport, and beyond; and is being widened to 10 lanes to accommodate the increased traffic. The only question is whether that would be enough. The problem really is the last 2 km from the highway into the airport, where a cloverleaf junction is being built. Its not ready yet, and is unlikely to be for at least another two months.

The time of travel is another thing - it will take at least an hour or more to get to the airport (2 and a half, if you're travelling from South Bangalore), and another 1-1/2 hours once inside there. So if you're flying to Chennai, it might be faster and much cheaper to just take a bus. And you can forget about flying to Mysore - it ain't worth it.

2. Drop-off - After a long and tiring ride to the airport, encountering jammed roads throughout, you'd expect some respite at least, or a chance to sit and say a half-decent bon voyage. There again, you will be disappointed. Non passengers aren't allowed inside the terminal, and just like the present airport, will have to see the passengers off at the entrance itself.

There is no place to even sit, no seats, no benches. BIAL says there will be food stalls outside, which is a small relief. But with no seats, and so little space, its hard to see how this will not end up looking like a railway platform. Hustle, bustle, people running to the gates, non-passengers seeing off or picking up people, no place to sit... you can imagine. If the arrival flight is delayed, god help you if you're not the passenger but the welcoming committee.

And if you expect some shelter from the heat or rain, don't count on it, what with so much rush and so little space. So god forbid, if you end up getting caught in the rain, throw the passenger out of the car with his luggage, and scoot... that way, you might even end up saving the not-so-small Parking Fee. Of course, there wont be any skirting the hefty entry fee that BIAL is sure to soon levy as another 'User development fee'.

3. Refreshments - Now you're obviously thinking that there should be at least some hotel or rest area. No great airport is complete without it. And you won't be disappointed. If you're a millionaire that is. Hilton Hotels will be building a hotel at the airport. So expect to have your wallet considerably lightened by the experience.

Don't expect any drinking water points or toilets either - its probably hard to fit in civic amenities when your aim is to develop something for cheap and rip money from the passengers who don't have any other choice. Its unlikely that you'll find a Darshini there either. Even though there will be some food courts at the drop-off area, if the rates at HAL airport are anything to go by, the food at any stall in BIAL would not come cheap. So pack your own food and get your own chairs. In fact, if you are so finicky about money, stay at home and let the traveler hitchhike his way to the airport.

4. Inside the Terminal - If you expect a Changi out of BIAL, dont hold your breath over it. The terminal isn't grand, and will certainly not take your breath away. Sure, the terminal is one big building that will be able to handle 11 million passengers annually. But I would have liked to see something that looked more colorful, with better furnishing, rather than the sparse factory-floor look that it has now.

The 54 Check-in counters are modern and will be integrated, that is, there will not be an airline specific, and anyone can check in anywhere. There will not be any messy and time-consuming pre-screening of the baggage - it is all done after check-in, in an automated luggage transfer system which will have a 3-level security screening, in line with most modern airports.

Then, you take a lift or escalator up a level to the main departure area. The immigrations and customs will also be a breeze, like in the present airport (its not sarcasm. The upgradation work on the Immigration counter has made the process smooth as hell). There will obviously be the premium priced shops for super-rich travellers. And thats where the comfort ends. and rows and rows of seats that can seat 10-12 plane-loads of travellers, like on a railway station platform.

Unfortunately, for an airport that claims to be built to cater to 11 million people a year, the planning doesn't seem to show that. For one, the terminal is far too narrow. There is far too little room between the escalators and the customs counters, which means that on a busy day, there will be massive pileups at the escalator area, which is a big safety concern, especially if people on the escalator have no space to get off.

There are only 4 small escalators and two small 8-man lifts along the whole terminal, and it certainly doesn't seem equipped to take the traffic load. And if one escalator does break down, the stampede at the only staircase would be worse than a cricket stadium gate during the World Cup Finals.

The final crib till I get a better look at the Airport - it doesn't have a nice big information board that most airports have. Imagine people searching for and trying to crowd around the small LCD TVs that BIAL says it will install. Not a nice sight.

5. Arriving in BIA - Arriving passengers at the airport will surely have a better experience than they have at the present airport. For one, no more ducts and pipes; and much better shopping. But there are a few issues. One, for a facility thats looking at becoming a major player in the Air travel market, and hopes to become a major hub for transit passengers, the infrastructure is shockingly inadequate. For one, there is no transit hotel or lounges for passengers. In fact, even in the master plan, there is no mention of a hotel. The only option for those on long layovers is if they have a India visa, they can stay at the Hilton. Otherwise, very sorry mate, but its the waiting seats for you.

Once they exit the plane, the passengers will have to walk through a narrow passageway and take a set of stairs down (overcrowding problem here as well), after which they will walk through a small area to collect their luggage... it looks more like a warehouse than it does a modern airport. The walk from the gates to he immigrations counter is a narrow passageway, and unlike the rest of the airport, is quite dark. The number of counters also seems a bit too small to handle peak hour rush.

The baggage collection area itself is as bad as HAL. See the picture.. there are only 4 carousels - 3 for domestic passengers and 1 for international arrivals - not nearly enough for a 'hub' which must handle 11 million people a year and up to 50 million passengers (when Phase 2 is complete).

6. Expansion plans - Which brings us to the so-called "BIAL Master Plan". Essentially, with 4000 acres of land and such a small terminal, BIAL has so much free land that they dont know what to do with it. There will be another runway and another terminal just like the present one, with an underground train linking them. They finally hope to have 60-80 gates, but looking at the present terminal, I find it hard to believe that their 50 million target is achievable. The present airport can handle 11 million, but only just. cranking that number up four and a half times with only a doubling in capacity will need a lot more planning and building.

They have 250 hectares of land which they plan to lease out to developers for building malls, tech parks, hotels, flats, and what not. Space that could have been used to plan for a third terminal (when the traffic will easily increase to about 35-40 million passengers per year), is being diverted to make money for the builders. No problem with it- after all, they also have to make money. The issue crops up when they decide that the money comes before user comfort. Additionally, the present number of beltways is nowhere close to anything needed for a full scale international airport. Right now, International flight timings are strictly limited. But if we want a truly international airport, these restrictions are a bad thing. In order to remove these restrictions, the airport needs more infrastructure.

7. Show me the Money - Finally, looking at the money, its clear that BIAL stands to make a killing - they've got a 60 year lease at the nominal amount, they have a 150 km no-airport zone (although, if the HAL airport continues to function, that will change for the better), and they have large tracts of land to give away to developers. Finally, above all that, they are overcharging the already-burdened passengers for using the airport. This after the poor sod (me included) pays through his nose so that the Airlines can pay through their noses to the Airport - higher fuel charges (not completely the airport's fault of course), Berthing charges, MRO charges and other misc. payments. And these fat fees will be borne by the passenger, who has to spend another 500 Rs just getting to the airport.

Now, if 8 million passengers pass through the airport each year, and about 20% of them are international passengers, who pay 1000/- Rs as User Development Fee, and the local passengers about 500/- Rs. That comes up to 480 Crore Rs. each year. Which means that BIAL can easily recoup their investment within 5 years AT MOST. And thats counting only the UDF!!! Imagine the amount of money they're rolling in with the Airline fees an land development money coming in. And now figure out why passengers are unhappy.

The Positives:

Now, before you get the impression that I'm all rant and no admiration, hold that thought. BIA is very well developed, and certainly does look good, at least from the outside. Its miles better than HAL, whose exposed pipes and AC ducts give one the feeling that he's a piece of luggage being transported. The airport will also be much cleaner and presentable than the present one.

The airport is extremely well lit, with a whole load of energy saving and eco-friendly features to cope with this post-Inconvenient Truth world. the large number of check-in counters means that no one will need to wait more than 10 minutes to check in. The check-in counters will not be airline specific, which means check-in anywhere. This is a good idea, but may be a problem for passengers who are in a hurry or when airline-specific counters is needed. Mind you, even most of the best airports today do not have common check-in yet.

It may also not look favorable compared to other airports around the world. For one, the amount of money spent, 2000 crore Rs., is far less than other countries spend on their airports; so it might be a little hypocritical asking for wine while paying beer money. But then, for a city that wants to call itself modern and world class, we should have paid a lot more to build a better airport, especially when even a smaller city in China has a billion dollar swanky airport that stuns everyone who enters. Look at the new Beijing Airport, and you get an idea of the pride they take in building these edifices. We've built functional, stripped-down airports; the Chinese make them functional, and then add a billion dollars to make it an architectural marvel.

What I think:

Overall, the Terminal building itself is reasonably modern looking. Its not a bad looking building at all. My grouse is that they built it so conservatively, and even after that, didn't make it functional enough, which will make it crowded and difficult to navigate around very soon. Even after that, they're overcharging the passengers. I think it won't be too long before the honeymoon and glitter wears off, and large numbers of passengers end up grumbling. The problem isn't the airport building per se, but the whole experience for the users. Its an expensive experience, and I think it won't be a comfortable one either. At least not unless BIAL decides to make some drastic changes to their operating paradigm.

Photos used with permission of Flickr user Photoyogi, from the BIAL visit photoset.

See Also:

Bangalore Praja:


Devesh Agarwal said...

Hi Sniperz

Good balanced article. Kudos.

Check out my Bangalore Aviation blog

I have gone more technical on the overall capacity constraints of the new airport and need to keep HAL open.



josh said...

nice article..

Kamla Bhatt said...

Thanks for this nice, comprehensive overview of the BIA airport.

Your post evoked all my nightmare recollections of commuting around Bangalore. I don't think people even have the faintest clue on what they have in store if they have to commute from JP Nagar or Koramangala to the airport.

As someone who lives in North Bangalore I have seen the evolution of Ring Road and the worsening of traffic conditions on that road. 3 years ago you could zoom down the road and reach Sarjapura in 25 minutes flat. Today it takes literally 2 hours to do the same commute and that is if you don't get stuck in traffic right where Intel, Nokia etc are located. Traffic is horrific right after the Cisco and Intel Bldg stretch on Ring Road. A couple of months ago I was stuck in traffic for 45 minutes just to travel 6 blocks or so...from the Accenture Office Bldg to where the new SAP blding is located.

Now for those using Ring Road to get to the new is what is in store.

For instance when you come from Marthahalli side expect to hit a huge traffic log jam from Kamannahalli all the way to Hebbal Junction. Now, if you are coming from Palace Grounds...expect to hit a huge traffic log jam right at that narrow flyover near Baptist Hosptial (hope I got the name right)heading to Hebbal and the airport. Bascially expect to see a huge tangle of vehicles in and around Hebbal junction.

If you thought the nightmare near Domlur a couple of years ago (when that flyover project was put on hold) was a nightmare, I say think again.

I suspect getting to the airport will be a huge bottleneck but that might on a temporary basis lead to decrease in air travel...people might take the car, or train. If you do the will take 2-3 hours to come from JP Nagar to BIA and then you wait in line for an hour to board a 2 hour flight to Chennai. The math does not compute for those who are going on a short biz trip.

I am not sure what to expect when I start using the airport...all that looms in my mind is the nightmarish commute!

Kamla Bhatt

Kamadhenu said...

Honeymoon?? You are kidding, Sir...All I see for BIAL is brickbats all the way...I have to disagree with you on the baggage handling area..I have seen the HAL one and the one at BIAL (from the pictures) is 10,000 times better. As to other issues, I am not knowledgeable enough to go either way. I have a question though, based on what you wrote in Praja : "let it open and we can sit back and watch the fun". What is your solution then? To close BIAL, because, though it is better than HAL, it is not world class?
Also, everyone was aware of the Yelehanka Air Base there. What were they doing ALL these years? It is not as if the YAB suddenly opened? Why was BIAL not stopped in the initial stages?
Sorry for the rant...

Devesh Agarwal said...

I am basing on BIAL's claim that the terminal has a capacity of 15 million. I am comparing the baggage make up areas of the two airports, based on their stated capacities. I am basing not on photographs but an on-site visit.

Yelahanka was pre-existing, yet Devanahalli was chosen knowing these impediments. The reason should be obvious, and it has nothing to do with technical logic.

sniperz11 said...

Thanks for all the responses. This post seems to be getting some heat, as expected, including a mail from BIAL offering to show me around and offer some clarifications. I hope to take that up.

Devesh Agarwalji, saw your reply today in the B'lore Mirror - excellent and quite apt.

Kamadhenuji, for a so-called world class airport, I think the baggage carousals at BIAL are absolutely inadequate. The person showing us around boasted that it would be able to handle over 20 million passengers annually. With the present infrastructure, I don't see how it can handle half of that.

Closing BIAL is no option, but closing HAL is a very bad decision IMO.

sniperz11 said...

And as we speak, BIAL has decided to charge all passengers a HUGE UDF - 1075 for international and Rs 575 (I think) for all local. multiply that by 12 million per year, and we see BIAL earning a cool Rs. 700 crores a year, AT LEAST!!

Devesh Agarwal said...

If you do go to BIA, can you please take me along. My email is

Incidentally the UDF for domestic is Rs. 675, and this is over and above the Rs 200 Passenger Service Fee.

sniperz11 said...

Sure sir, Will do that.... anyway, with BIAL opening in 3 days, there won't be much I can see..

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