Mumbai: India's first civil aviation airport is on its last legs. From September 18, secondary runway 16/34 of Juhu aerodrome will be decommissioned. The decision has been made following a recent safety audit report issued by air safety department of Airports Authority of India (AAI). A pertinent point is that main runway 08/26 of the aerodrome cannot be used whenever Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA) -which is less than two kilometres away - operates flights from its secondary runway 14/32 because of problems in alignment.
The audit report (copy with MiD DAY) sent by AAI to all top aviation functionaries reads: "Juhu shall not use runway 16/34 for landings/takeoffs with effect from 18-9-2012." It goes on to say: "This one week's time is given to put temporary NOTAM (notices to airmen) in place, intimate operators/other stakeholders including Mumbai ATC, MIAL etc, that Juhu airport will be closed to landings/takeoffs whenever Mumbai uses runway 14/32 and hence, all the helicopters/Juhu-based fixed-wing aircraft that are in the air heading towards Juhu will have to divert and land at CSIA, Mumbai. This temporary NOTAM can be lifted and Juhu airport can revert to normal operations as soon as runway 16/34 is resurfaced. Operators based at Juhu may be advised to make necessary arrangements with MIAL to provision parking space at CSIA for them to cater to the exigency of Juhu airport becoming suddenly unavailable whenever CSIA switches over from runway 09/27 to runway 14/32
The report recommends shutting down the derelict runway 16/34 till it's repaired. However, on May 15, MiD DAY had highlighted ('AAI officers wanted to shut down Juhu runway to help buildings stand tall') an unholy nexus between some Airports Authority of India (AAI) bigwigs and the builders' lobby, endeavouring to shut down to retire this particular runway permanently for furtherance of building projects.
The secondary runway 14/32 of Mumbai airport is frequently used for operations in case there are issues like potholes or ongoing repairs with the main runway. 14/32 is also recurrently used during monsoons. Helicopter pilots from various companies also told this newspaper that it is the wind that decides which strip is feasible for operations, and hence the need for two runways. "Because of the current wind situation, secondary runway 14/32 of Mumbai is regularly employed. So, if secondary runway 16/34 of Juhu aerodrome shuts down, its main runway 08/26 cannot operate either," said Captain Prashant Oak of aviation company Deccan Charters Limited.
Captain Uday Gelli, president, Rotary Wing Society of India (Western Region), said, "Both runways of Juhu aerodrome are required for operations. If 16/34 shuts down, operations will come to a standstill." Captain BS Ranade of Pune-based Bharat Forge endorsed these views.
"If runway 16/34 shuts down, Juhu airport will shut down. As per the regulations drawn, no helicopter operation is permitted from Mumbai airport. Where will the choppers go?" asked Captain Ashok Purandare, a very senior pilot who currently flies for the Reliance Group.
On February 28, 2011 the appellate committee for NOC under Ministry of Civil Aviation through letter number AV10932/003/2009-AAt pt.t, issued instructions to conduct an aeronautical study for Juhu airport in respect of inner horizontal surface (IHS). A committee under then executive director of Airports Authority of India (AAI) JMS Negi undertook the study and completed the same on May 6, 2011. Interestingly, while alluding to Juhu runway 16/34 in the report, Negi went on to say that it is not feasible to use it for operational purposes in any combination as it directly affects flights at Mumbai airport. One line in the same paragraph of the report reads, "As per airport directory of AAI, 16/34 has not been specified as runway as no declared distances have been provided."
Since then the AAI headquarters has sent many correspondences to Juhu authorities for decommissioning the runway. To ensure that it shut down no resurfacing was done despite potholes appearing on the runway, making it dangerous for operations. "Despite the intimation by Juhu that the runway is in use and its operational importance apropos to runway 14/32 of Mumbai CSIA, AAI has been issuing NOCs based on Negi's erroneous report without heeding to Juhu's concerns. Based on Negi's report, corporate headquarters (CHQ), AAI is now unwilling to sanction the resurfacing of runway 16/34," the safety audit report reads.
Pilots including Gelli and Oak too pointed out that such reports and recommendations are made only to benefit developers who want to build high-rises in the vicinity.
When contacted, Juhu airport director M Yadagiri said, "I cannot comment on the issue now." AAI chairman, VP Aggarwal could not be contacted despite repeated attempts.
Paying the price
Currently, helicopter operations are not permitted at Mumbai airport. Even if this situation changes, operators will have to pay two to three times more towards parking and landing charges compared to Juhu aerodrome. While Juhu aerodrome charges Rs 12.80 per hour, the rate at Mumbai airport is about Rs 29 per hour. CSIA has introduced a new penalty for non-scheduled operators that starts from Rs 100 per hour. No such rule exists with AAI or Juhu aerodrome. "The cost factor no doubt will impact operators," Captain Purandare said.
What the rulebook says
NoTAM G0243/10/ 10-12-2010 of AAI (copy with MiD DAY) reads: "All civil and military helicopters shall use Juhu airport operations instead of Mumbai international airport, except helicopters carrying VVIPs, minister in union government, chief ministers, deputy chief ministers, governors, ambulance helicopters, or any person notified as VIP by the government of Maharashtra." If chopper operations were to be resumed at CSIA, this rule would have to be amended.
Area (in acres) of the airport
Rs 14 cr
Annual income of Juhu airport
Number of daily operations (can go up to 145 in peak season)