17 Mar 2024  |   05:54am IST

Is Dabolim International Airport headazing for complete closure?

Since the opening of the Manohar International Airport (MIA) at Mopa, quite a few prominent airlines – domestic and international – have shifted their flights to MIA from the Goa International Airport (GIA) at Dabolim. Already, a large section of Goan diaspora is disappointed following the decision of Qatar Airways to relocate its operations from Dabolim to MIA with effect from June 20. Leader of Opposition Yuri Alemao has said the decision by domestic and international airlines to move operations to MIA, could turn Dabolim airport into a ‘ghost airport’. However, admitting a “drop in passengers’ footfall”, Director of GIA, Dhanamjaya Rao has ruled out the possibility of shutting down the Dabolim International Airport, so has Dabolim MLA and Panchayats Minister, Mauvin Godinho. Yet, the speculation is rife that all the flights from Dabolim airport may shift to Mopa and the GIA may shut down completely. In the weekly Herald TV debate Point-Counterpoint, SUJAY GUPTA explores the fate of Dabolim Airport
Is Dabolim International Airport  headazing for complete closure?

The Goenkars are right now desolate and lamenting the loss of an airport as there is a deep feeling that the Goa International Airport, Dabolim could lose all its flights to Manohar International Airport, Mopa and the former may completely shut down, which was hitherto promised to be kept open and function normally. 

GIA is gradually losing not only its importance, but also its flights almost on a weekly and a monthly basis. While this should not come as a surprise to all, what has irked people is this constant narrative that has been played out for the last almost a decade or so that the Mopa airport would only be the second airport and not the only airport and Dabolim would not be shut come what may.

But the reality is exactly the opposite. Studies have very specifically stated that you can have two airports only if you have 24 million passengers and that is a figure that is unlikely to be reached anytime shortly. Secondly, with Mopa airport becoming operational, air traffic is moving rapidly there, leaving very little scope for Dabolim to continue with its operations, unless there is a will and there is a direction in ensuring that both the airports survive.

However, let us go back to one important point that on July 20, 2000, the Manohar Parrikar cabinet at that point of time, when they were discussing this whole proposal for new airport at Mopa, decided that the existing civilian operations from the Dabolim airport shall be closed upon commissioning the new international airport, notwithstanding that there were several promises made regarding keeping Dabolim airport operational.

We have documentation to show that two former Union defence ministers - George Fernandes and Pranab Mukherjee in their communications to Goan leaders, have had promised that Dabolim airport would not suffer or would die down and of course, there have been several other comments made by Goan MLAs and ministers like Mauvin Godinho, in whose consistency this airport is located.

They have continuously given the hope that GIA, Dabolim won’t die. However, with most international and domestic airlines now moving to Mopa, the writing on the wall is extremely clear. In the debate, attempts will be made to essentially recount some of these promises that were made and the feasibility of Dabolim international airport.

But the question that the people are asking is, when you make these kind of promises to are these just lip service to get votes or you are serious about ensuring that Dabolim airport survives.

One of the most important issues that we also need to flag is the impact on the tourism industry, which is critical. Most of the major five-star hotels are in South Goa and the issue is that a large number of tourists or at least high-end ones, come to South Goa to be a part of these hotels.

So, how is the tourism industry taking to it? How are there other allied services, like the shack owners, taking to it? How is the taxi business reacting to it? So, all these issues are important and we need to look at all these and flag these issues as we see the day-to-day reality unfolding.

Responding to the issue, Abhijit Prabhudesai, convenor, Federation of Rainbow Warriors, said, “My understanding is that the construction of Mopa airport has been almost a fatal hit on Goa. I mean, for me personally, it’s like the biggest loss of my life. I say this because I’ve stayed a number of nights on the Mopa plateau and I have experienced this amazing place. Anybody who has stayed there, will certainly say that this is a big mistake.”

“But leaving aside personal experiences, as a person from the aviation industry, I have been involved in considering second airports at places like in Dubai and across the world, with the top consultants of the world and the writing on the wall it’s very clear. You are putting your entire economy under great risk by constructing a second airport and this has been seen across the world – Greece, Poland, Spain, and Portugal – everywhere,” Prabhudesai said. 

“But I would like to say that all of this is happening because it’s only driven by greed. It's not driven by reason, it's not driven by science. But, it’s driven by this concept that ‘I want Goa to make money out of the brand name Goa’. It’s like killing the goose laying golden eggs. That's what we are doing,” he said.

The point here is, from the point of view of tourism industry, continuously there was this whole narrative, especially initially from South Goa, saying that look if the airport moves there it is fine as there would be super-fast highways, access roads and expressways and so on and so forth. But ultimately if you see, the economic development, construction activities - all that will ultimately move to that area.

Five star hotels are going to come up, which will lead to a slow and tragic kind of a death of the South Goa’s tourism industry. How far is that true?

“I don’t think South Goa’s tourism industry is going to die because of the Mopa airport. The reason being simple. If you see the demography of Goa, the travel distance between  both airports by road would be one-and-a-half hours maximum, considering the highway connecting both the ends,” president of Travel and Tourism Association of Goa (TTAG), Nilesh Shah said.

“In fact, we look at it as an opportunity for South Goa, because it will bring high-end tourism here and won’t disturb the people’s mental peace. In fact, high-end tourism is coming to the South. So, if you see all star hotels are in the South,” Shah said. 

He further said that the narrative that the presence of Mopa airport will lead to demise of Dabolim airport, is wrong.

“I personally feel both the airports will co-exist. I’ll give you a few reasons for that. Mopa comes into the picture because Dabolim is a naval airport. I have completed more than three decades in the industry. There has been a restriction of flights at Dabolim airport. With the expiration crowd coming in, with the more airlines coming in, the flights started increasing. So automatically, air traffic went up. So, there was a thought of a need for a new airport at Mopa,” Shah said. 

The TTAG president said that even today, the number of flights which are coming at Dabolim are definitely more than Mopa or what it can handle. 

“Mopa’s capacity as of now is 4.4 million, which they are touching. So if they have to grow, they have to expand and they have an expansion plan. Similarly, the growth at Dabolim is kept at around 10 million. So, they are also on the verge of growing,” he said.

Undoubtedly Dabolim has restrictions, but all along the political dispensation – be it from the State or at the Centre - have all along said Dabolim airport won’t be closed down. The solution will come from expanding the airport by giving more acres of land in the Dabolim area, improving the infrastructure so that it takes more load, to work its way around the restrictions of the defence airport.

For instance, on June 21, 2006, the then Union Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee in a letter to Louizinho Faleiro, agreed to release additional 8.77 acres of naval land for expansion and creation of infrastructure to create a civilian enclave, upgradation and modernisation of the airport. 

So, the thinking clearly was that Dabolim would be expanded to ensure that more traffic could be handled. Way back on August 13, 1999, the then Secretary of Civil Aviation, P V Jayakrishnan essentially said at that point of time that we will ensure that Dabolim will have 24 hours landing and take-off facility for civilian aircrafts. The runway would be upgraded so that bigger aircrafts could land. 

He also said that more ATCs would be put at Dabolim and have Instrument Landing System at the airport. It was also agreed upon that there would be a study on the pattern on which the Kochi airport was upgraded and Goa would be developed along the same lines. So, this data points to the fact that there was a very clear thinking that all the drawbacks of Dabolim airport would be circumvented by these kinds of steps. So, the thinking was Mopa did not necessarily offer the solution to raise traffic load. Improving Dabolim was the solution.

Reacting to this, Prabhudesai said, “From my understanding and knowledge about the aviation industry and our studies of Dabolim airport, the airport can be expanded continuously to meet future needs, till whatever growth is possible. So, there was absolutely no need for the Mopa airport.”

“The then Union Minister for Civil Aviation, Ajit Singh, when he came for the opening of the Dabolim terminal, said very clearly you guys are working on this too late. All the big guys are waiting for this airport, so that their investments in land in southern Maharashtra and northern Goa will bear fruit. So what is driving this is only speculation regarding land,” the activist said.

Shah said that since Mopa airport is now a reality, it is important to look at the flight landing details.

“The data shows, 61 flights land at Dabolim, that is 57 domestic and four international. For Mopa, the figure is 30 flights, of which 26 are domestic and four international. So, 30 flights as of now land at Mopa airport,” the TTAG president said. 

“I'm not here to defend any X versus Y, but I will give you the correct perspective on how the industry looks at it because I’m into the travel business. Overall, after commissioning of Mopa airport, the air traffic has increased by 30%. Earlier 8.4 million passengers were coming into Goa. Today it is 11.2 million. So there is a straight away increase of passenger growth of almost three million, which would not have been possible without Dabolim’s current capacity. Because we have seen when Mopa was not around, there used to be chaos on many occasions,” Shah said.

But the point at hand is that the people of South Goa or many people involved in this both emotionally and otherwise, feel that this growth is certainly coming but what is it doing to trade and tourism in the South?

“So, what has happened is at Dabolim, there has been a fall in the number of passengers by 1 million, from 8 million last year to 7 million this year for various reasons. One of the major reasons for this is the lesser number of charter flights, reasons of which are known to everyone. Secondly, the airlines themselves have their own issues, like today Spice Jet is having its own issues,” he said. 

“They had 18 to 19 flights earlier. Now it is just two to three flights and the only flight which they wanted to hold on in Dabolim because it is a premium airport. So Spice Jet is having its own financial issues, so that’s the reason they have reduced the flights. They are having court cases. They have got the funding also right now, so hopefully it will streamline its operations,” he said.

Goa Air’s flights have fallen drastically from 16 flights into Goa to zero. Indigo as of now has almost there are 40 to 60 aircrafts, which are grounded because of engine issue. So, they are going for proper checks and will come back again. Due to this reason, from January 15, they withdrew almost 16 flights from Goa. Now, gradually they are rebuilding.

“I think now almost 10 flights are back at both the airports. Of course Akasa added to the capacity, plus Air India merging with Vistara, their overall capacity has increased. So when airlines are growing, they will definitely require a place to park their aircrafts. They will require more sustainable flights and Goa is one place which they are looking at,” Shah said.

Speaking on the priority area for the fight to save Dabolim airport, Dominic Naronha, member of Goans for Dabolim Only (GFDO) said, “Dabolim airport is the only sustainable airport of Goa. But the Government is doing everything in its capacity to suffocate this airport. Flights are being taken away. The government could be playing a role into trying to bringing down the number of flights. BJP is in power at the Centre and State. So, taking decisions in this regard would be much easier.”

When asked about Shah’s comments wherein he said that the reduction of flights was not necessary. The current reduction in number of flights to Dabolim has been caused by internal issues being faced by the various major domestic airlines, Noronha said, “That’s his point of view. But my point of view is that if the governments are run at the Centre and the State by the same party, why there is no effort towards ensuring that Dabolim sustains and is not suffocated. This is pure suffocation.”

“There are many reasons. One reason is that flights are being cancelled just two to three days prior to departure. You are being informed by giving choices that you fly from Mopa or you can take a refund. That is one thing. The other thing is you continuously get messages that flights are being changed. Recently it has happened to me.”

For any State or city, there is always a central point for ease of travel. In Goa, Dabolim was the most ideal central point. So the focus should have been to have an ideal airport which connects the whole of the State.

“Now, Mopa has come. It could be used for other purposes, maybe cargo or something else. There is a lot of potential for expanding services in the non-passenger category at an airport. So why has the focus not been on this aspect?” he asked. 

While many important viewpoints came in during this discussion, at some point of time the interest of the industry also needs to be aligned with the interests of the people. Profit for sure is important for growth and development.

But at the same time, one needs to look at the entire essence of the land and see whether the land and the people ultimately benefit, because ultimately governments and people who are at power have to deliver because irrespective of who they are batting for, they must understand that they’re playing this game on the basis of they getting the votes from the people of the land and that is most critical.


IDhar UDHAR

Idhar Udhar