Mumbai airport's big face-lift: The story so far

Mumbai airport's big face-lift: The story so far

A decade ago it looked like a bus stand. Soon a major face-lift will make Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji the "mother of all Indian airports"
Mumbai airport
The Mumbai airport is becoming a name to reckon with in Asia's aviation circles, and comparisons to Singapore’s Changi Airport are already being overheard.

Some time in 2002, after alighting from a flight at the Mumbai airport, the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra Sharad Pawar made a disparaging remark that his state's airport reminded him of a State Transport bus stand.

Caustic as it was, the remark hit home.

Reactions among citizens ranged from indignation to anger, to outrage -- all the emotions that truth evokes -- and concurrently a large chunk of India's public sector was opened up to private entrepreneurs.

Allowing private players in the infrastructure sector has been good for India, and that includes public-private participation in the construction and operation of India’s airports, too.

Take Mumbai airport, once the subject of Mr. Pawar’s ire.

Till such time it was in the hands of the Airports Authority of India (AAI) -- a government of India body -- its terminals were rambling edifices, its gray concrete walls reminiscent of a prison; inside them dank corridors led passengers from the outside to …. well … nowhere, because somebody had forgotten to put up all the direction signages.

Dirty loos were an accepted albeit unsavory part of airport travel, floor/sidewall tiles that were often mistaken for spittoons became repositories of paan stains and chewing gum.

Restaurant menus whose day’s best rotated between a stale samosa and veggie pizza, some duty-free shops with dust-lined shelves sporting vodka brands from former Iron Curtain countries, and dubious money changers -- all supervised by uninterested, boorish or simply absent attendants.

On the outside, cabbies, who, if it were not for their uniforms could easily pass off as British-era thugs. Which they were, in a sense, because of their habit of over-charging and occasionally robbing "phoren" customers.

The list is long.

Perhaps Mr. Pawar had been right, then.

The Mumbai airport did compare to a bus stand. Except that instead of buses, this cement complex had aircraft flying in hundreds of thousands of tourists from foreign lands.

Airports are the first advertisements of the nations they represent, but in India till a couple decades ago, nobody seemed to care, much less understand this.

Cut to 2011: Mumbai is a world capital

Mumbai airportThere was a time in the history of Mumbai airport when the only alcohol you could find was dusty bottles of dubious vodka from former Iron Curtain countries.Globalized Mumbai needs an airport to match its financial might.

A new airport is coming up from the debris of the old one, which is being demolished, piece by piece. Frequent fliers using the Mumbai airport would have already noticed the transformation and the view certainly holds promise of things to come.

The metamorphosis is slow, not in step with the quick pace of ordinary Mumbai life. But airports around the world are known to take anything between eight to 10 years to be constructed.

The Mumbai airport seems to be becoming a name to reckon with in aviation circles, and comparisons to Singapore’s Changi Airport are already being overheard on the city’s cocktail circuit.

When the project had started the estimated cost of construction was Rs 9,800 crore or US$2.19 billion.

So far there's been a noticeable reduction in flight delays due to construction of rapid exit taxiways for aircraft in 2007 and the commissioning of two additional taxiways in 2009.

The refurbishing of domestic terminal 1B (popularly called the Santa Cruz airport) and last year the inauguration of new domestic terminal 1C (for boarding only) made connectivity between terminals 1A and 1B seamless.

There's even a Thai spa for express foot massages and a pop-up bar now. 

When's the wow moment?

Mumbai airportFrequent fliers using the Mumbai airport would have already noticed the transformation.Not for another three years or so.

Officially, the airport’s designers do not want to give an inaugural year despite being asked to do so.

Yet, going by previous media interviews and reports, it is safe to presume for now that it should be be anytime in 2014.

When the new Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA) will be thrown open to fliers, airport officials promise it will be the "mother of all Indian airports."

The Bandra-Worli Sealink and the CSIA, they insist, will be the metropolis’ modern icons, a testimony to what its people and planners can achieve.

It may be called “modernization” but the exercise, according to the airport master plan, is a combination of "upgrade", "modernize" and "construct".

"Too many people have been skeptics regarding India," said Sanjay Reddy, vice president, GVK Power & Infrastructure, majority partner in the Mumbai International Airport Pvt Ltd (MIAL) -- the consortium in charge of the re-build, in mid-2010.

He said this was the chance to change the face of a city forever.

“If we can deliver on this vision, then we can transform the city for the better,” he said.

MIAL was handed over physical possession of the airport in May 2006 and has been hammering at it ever since.

MIAL has to construct a new airport even as it continues to operate the old one 24/7, ensuring no flights or cargo movements at one of South Asia’s largest air transport hubs are disrupted.

Stage two of T2

Mumbai airportThe Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower, coming up at Santa Cruz, will be the centerpiece of the airport make-over. There are two major stages to the mammoth construction going on at the Sahar side -- that is, the inside and the outside.

The inside encompasses the runways, the aprons, the aero-bridges, air traffic control, the passenger boarding gates, the terminals, the customs and immigration counters, ticket counters and passenger comforts like retail shopping, lounges.

The outside means taxi stands, hotels, restaurants, convention centers, parking space, among others.

Visible progress can be seen on both fronts yet, certain political and social factors have proved (and continue to be) hindrances to the airport’s development, primarily on the outside, leading to a delay.

When all the pieces of the jigsaw are ultimately joined, T2 will be one mega-terminal at Sahar, handling 40 million international and domestic passengers and 1 million tonnes of cargo a year.

T2 will will be an integrated passenger terminal spread across four levels, covering an area of more than 400,000 square meters with duty free shops, slick passenger lounges, connectivity between terminals by metro rail and elevated road, hopefully, helpful and better trained porters and officers and unmatched security.

Check-in counters will number 188, there will be 60 departure immigration counters, 76 arrival immigration counters, 52 passenger boarding bridges, 73 elevators and a Rs 287 crore six-lane elevated road leading to T2 parking for 5,000 vehicles.

Mumbai airportThere's been a noticeable reduction in flight delays due to construction of rapid exit taxiways for aircraft in 2007 and the commissioning of two additional taxiways by 2009.The Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower, coming up at Santa Cruz, will be the centerpiece of the make-over.

Its exterior (at least on the planning table) looks more like an opulent Dubai hotel than what it is -- an aircraft guidance room.

Handling around 100,000 passengers a day, not including cargo and other non-commercial flights, Mumbai's CSIA airport shall then be propelled into the big league of Asian airports where players like Incheon (South Korea), Changi (Singapore) and Hong Kong International Airport compete with each other for the “Best Airport of the Year” award.

Since Mumbai’s planned second airport at Navi Mumbai is highly unlikely to be built by 2014, given the rate at which officialdom is moving on that project, for now, and for perhaps the next decade, Mumbaikars will have the CSIA.

After 23 years of hardcore, everyday journalism, Amrita has decided to eject out of the strait jacket of everyday reporting to take up writing, purely for the love of it.

Read more about Amrita Ghaswalla