Mumbai is India's financial capital and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) is the only option for anyone to fly in. The nearest alternative is Pune, but it's 150 km away. The over-crowded Mumbai airport handles around 48.5 million passengers every year with an average of 969 aircraft movements a day. This is the highest for any single-runway airport in the world, and air traffic has witnessed an increase of 10 percent during the last fiscal year.
There have been instances where the airport was forced to handle more than 1,000 aircraft in a single day, that amounts to one flight every 85 seconds
. The primary runway (09/27) is 3,660 metres long and capable of handling every possible aircraft, including the superjumbo A380 and B747. But, the secondary runway (14/32) is smaller at 2,990 metres and cannot accommodate wide-body aircraft.
In a nutshell, the city relies on a single runway for all its international flight requirements. If this runway is out of service because of incidents or for maintenance, the city is paralysed and aircraft movement is severely affected. Adding to this, Mumbai receives heavy rainfall during the
June-September period. Visibility drops massively during this time, the airport territory often gets water logged and winds are harsh.
On Monday, Mumbai experienced heavy rainfall, which had exposed chinks in the airport infrastructure. A Spicejet flight skid and overshot the runway (27) around 11.45 PM; thankfully there were no casualties. The primary runway had to be closed for operations and the airport solely relied on the secondary one.
I was on an inbound flight and we had to abort landing on the secondary runway thanks to high turbulence and strong cross-winds. Keep in mind, the airport wasn't closed, but airlines individually followed their enhanced safety protocols and decided to abort landings. While nobody wanted to land considering the weather, an Iraq Air flight thought otherwise and proceeded to land. They made it across successfully, but my flights pilot called the crew stupid. To be more precise, "He's a crackpot, stunts should be left for the simulator".
Why am I narrating this incident?
This isn't the first time Mumbai has been choking and we've made headlines for numerous flight cancellations and diversions. Early this year, the primary runway was up for maintenance and flights had to be cancelled or rescheduled to accommodate operations via the secondary airport. And, we cannot factor out incidents like the one I mentioned above. How long will we depend on one runway to get us home? What's the expansion plan? How can we decongest Mumbai?
There just one answer: Navi Mumbai International Airport
Back in the day, Mumbai as a city had a similar problem. No place to expand and rising population required more space. Authorities decided to start a new urban development project under CIDCO, which is called Navi Mumbai today. While it's always debatable how much this has actually decongested Mumbai, the airport scene is different.
All major cities in the world have multiple airports. London has Heathrow, Stansted, City, Luton, Southend and Gatwick. New York has six airports, Tokyo has four, Paris has five, and Moscow has four. Many cities like Atlanta, Dallas, Shanghai, and Singapore have just one, but they are enormous with four to five runways and designed to handle the traffic. Even Delhi has three runways to ease aircraft movement.
Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA) was conceptualised decades back, when the area was coming up as a city. But till date, there's been near-zero progress. Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone at the airport site in February 2018. More than a year later, environmental clearances and land acquisition are still pending. I get it, bureaucracy takes its own time, but it takes more time when there's no pressure.
Construction at war footing, but first let something happen...
This is India's attitude to safety and infrastructure. We wake up only when a few lives are lost and headlines are made. A single foot over bridge required the Army's help in Mumbai, not because it was the need of the hour, but because people died and there was pressure. Are the authorities waiting for an ‘incident’ to happen at CSMIA?
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is confident the airport will be operational by mid-2020, but experts tend to disagree. The project started in 2017 and so far a hillock has been flattened, marshland has been reclaimed and a river has been diverted. The project has already crossed multiple deadlines and just last month L&T was awarded a bid to build the airport. Can ground levelling, cutting down hills, as well as building a full-fledged runway be done within a year?
The airport will not only become another gateway to Mumbai but also help CSIA by becoming a strong backup. Today, if you shut down CSIA, the A380 needs to be diverted to Hyderabad (RGIA), Bengaluru (KIA) or Delhi (IGI). Similarly, other large aircraft such as the 777 have limited options around them.
Bengaluru airport is being expanded and another runway is being added. Similarly, it is high time Mumbai gets attention and NMIA should be operational as soon as possible. Anymore delay may prove costly for everyone.
Shivam Vahia is a developer by hobby and an avid aviation geek.