CHENNAI: The city may be hot, but it certainly isn’t a hotspot for airlines to set up shop. Reason? Because lots of airline operators feel that the operational capability of the staff and facilities here is ‘slow and lethargic’, compared to privately-owned terminals. And for once, faulty passenger facilities are at the bottom of the complaint list.
Private airlines have never really liked the idea of setting up a HQ in Chennai, but
AirAsia jumped at it when all that space in the Kamaraj Domestic Terminal came up for grabs. Two years later, that picture has all but dissolved. “The truth is, we’re talking to AAI about a whole lot of things and lot of parts of the airport need to be upgraded. Getting licences and approvals was easy both in Chennai and Bangalore, but when it comes to operational efficiency, it’s a lot easier in BIAL,” said Mittu Chandilya, AirAsia India’s vibrant, young CEO. And despite the threat of AirAsia pulling out and moving HQ, AAI officials have reportedly done little to stop them.
Four out of six new airlines have been issued permits by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, adding to the Jet-Etihad and Tata-SIA airlines that are marching forward. Despite Chennai airport being considered South India’s biggest aviation hub — with upper-air space harmonisation, GBAS, night parking and so on — none of the airlines has voiced interest in setting up operations here, “Just to get a plane from the hangar to the tarmac, Jet and Deccan planes would have to wait for 20- odd minutes, because their planes were parked at the back and ATC didn’t want to find a quicker way. When this is the attitude at a time when all private airports are offering great hangars and facilities, how will anyone come?” queries a Jet Airways pilot.
With privately- owned terminals offering more competitive rates, better turnaround times and quicker hangar parking and runway coordination, Airports Authority of India (AAI) may well be searching for answers ahead of their next airport modernisation drive. “We’re targeting an aircraft turnaround time of 20 minutes and that’s something that just isn’t working here,” said Chandilya. “Looking at the aerobridges, the time from the pilots lounge to the plane, how fast the baggage gets off the conveyor, all of these things matter to the customer. And while I can be on the phone with BIAL asking for these things, it isn’t quite the same here,” he trailed off.
And the definitive nail in that coffin is the high taxation on Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF). With Bharat Petroleum retailing it at Rs 6,400 per KL over what it costs in Delhi, the fuel costs are considerably higher for an airline operating in Tamil Nadu —especially as tax on fuel is fixed at 28 per cent by the State Government. “It’s the same in Karnataka but at least they are considering bringing it down after the next Assembly session. That’s why airlines prefer Delhi and Bangalore as hubs,” said a member of the Airline Operators Committee (AOC), on condition of anonymity. Almost in agreement, Chandilya added, “It’s about which State sees us as a big deal for the economy, so we want to go where we’re welcome and where the State sees us as part of their future.”