New terminal, old doubts

Calcutta, Jan. 20: Calcutta airport's new terminal opened today after failing four deadlines with two questions hovering in the background.

One, are there enough airlines willing to serve Calcutta?

Two, will the services at the state-run airport live up to its sparkling facade?

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee herself flagged the first doubt. "I am asking the Airports Authority of India to please ask other airlines to come to Calcutta. So many embassy people are sitting here... you should also see to it that more airlines come," she said.

Mamata crowed that Bengal "is No. 1 in small-scale industry" but aviation experts wondered if that would be enough to lure back the airlines that had fled the city over the years.

"Now, West Bengal is the destination for investment and industry. Bengal is No. 1 in small-scale industry. Now, it is also doing well in large-scale industry," Mamata said.

However, Calcutta's air traffic is made up largely of holidaymakers and those who fly out for education. They do not ensure traffic through the year unlike business travellers (see Metro).

Only four top-rung international airlines now fly from Calcutta. Most airlines fill their fuel tanks in other cities because Calcutta levies the highest local tax on aviation turbine fuel among all the metros.

Many airlines have complained about the steep charge but a senior state finance department official, speaking on the sidelines of today's event, denied that it was an issue.

President Pranab Mukherjee indirectly raised the other concern while asserting there was little difference between private and public facilities as long as the service provided was up to the mark.

"Private funding in civil aviation for setting up airports has been an issue for some time…. But a couple of airports like Calcutta said 'we the public sector can do it' and they have done it," he said.

"I don't find any difference between the public and the private sectors. Both are important for the country's national resources. But the point is how efficiently well managed and well equipped they are…. The quality of service is important."

Calcutta airport had a terminal with the capacity to handle only 4.8 million passengers a year. The new 190,000sqm facility is equipped to handle 20 million.

Sitting in the audience was CPM Rajya Sabha member Sitaram Yechury. The airports authority had wanted him on the dais along with Mamata and Mukherjee because he is the chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on transport, tourism and culture, which also looks after aviation. Mamata's office allegedly shot the idea down.

"It doesn't matter whether I am sitting on the dais or not," Yechury said.

Asked whether he had expected a call to come up to the dais, he said: "They should have (called me). Chairs were vacant (on the dais)... but what can one do?"

One consolation for Yechury was that Mamata did mention "Yechuryji" along with Trinamul MPs before starting her speech.

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