Is the Mysore airport jinxed even before takeoff?

PALINI R. SWAMY writes from Bangalore: The new Bangalore international airport has been receiving an obscene amount of attention from “visionaries” like Captain G.R. Gopinath, Ramesh Ramanathan and R.K. Misra, all of whom seem to be reacting at this late hour as if it was being built secretly for three years.

While they and other Rip Van Winkles in our midst (like Ramya Krishnamurthy) can keep debating if the old airport should be kept open, if the user development fee should be scrapped or reduced, if a city should have two airports, etc, here’s some fresh cud to chew: will the Devanahalli airport make the Mandakalli airport a bit of a no-go?

The airstrip in Mysore was built in 1948—take that, “visionaries”, 60 years ago! Its last burst of commercial activity was in the mid-1980s when Vayudoot ran a feeder service (the inaugural flight famously took to the skies without the man who inaugurated it, R.K. Narayan!). But it’s been in a state of disrepair since then.

Every so often, Mysore’s tourism potential (the palace attracted more foreign tourists last year than the Taj Mahal), its burgeoning status as an IT alternative, and a vast and growing diaspora have been bandied about as reasons why the city of pak, parks and palaces should not get its own full-fledged airport for commercial flights to take off and land.

The good news it is: The runway is being extended, a section of the Mysore-Nanjangud road is being readied to be realigned, and news reports indicate that the airport should be ready sooner rather than later.

The bad news is: is its immediate financial viability in the “foreseeable future” under a question mark because of the centre of air operations in Bangalore shifting to Devanahalli?

1) How many business travellers will go by air to Bangalore or vice-versa? A fast 30-minute air hop to and from Electronic City seemed an exciting prospect when the old airport was around. But to and from Devanahalli, which entails a minimum 30-minute check in, a 30-minute flight, a minimum 90-120 minute drive to and from the airport all adding upto a minimum three-hour ordeal? Will the time-strapped IT executives, whose perceived needs hastened the revival of Mysore airport, want to spend so much time when a road trip even on the existing highway could do the job for less? Even if and when the Bangalore-Mysore expressway becomes operational?

2) How many foreign tourists will want to come to Mysore or leave for Bangalore by air? Let’s face it. Mysore’s tourism potential is umbilically connected with that of Bangalore. Mysore is a stop after Bangalore, not on its own. At least not yet. Again, like in the case of the business travellers, we can wonder if backpackers are willing to make a journey towards Hyderabad on their way to Mysore, and pay a crazy user development fee on top of their ticket, especially with vastly improved and very convenient bus and train services? Especially with the palace on wheels, The Golden Chariot, on the anvil?

3) How many foreign travellers will want to use the air option? The likelihood of a direct foreign flight to and from Mysore is a good 5-10 years away, if not more. So, travellers to and from Mysore have to be content with stopovers and connecting flights. With the frequency of flights to and Mysore unlikely to be few and far between in the initial months, if not years, will it be attractive to foreign travellers? If a flight from Atlanta lands in Bangalore at 1 am, will a traveller want to wait till 7-10 am the next morning for a flight to Mysore, when he could easily have reached home by road?

Quite clearly, Mysoreans flying to Delhi and Bombay, or to London and New York, will find the connections offered by the new international airport convenient, especially because they will not have to make the long and tortuous road journey to Devanahalli. Nevertheless, is Mysore likely to provide the quantum of traffic that airlines will find attractive, for frequent flights, without expanding the transit time in Bangalore to ridiculous lengths?

From this distance, only three possibilities seem to hold out immediate hope for Mysore airport from day one. The first is, it could offer fast and easy connections to smaller cities within the State like Mangalore, Hubli-Dharwad and Belgaum, providing of course that airlines find it viable to link these cities. The second is, it could help companies and industries to use air cargo to transport expensive equipment and finished products. The third is, it could help the rich and well-heeled like Venu Srinivasan of TVS to land their private jets and play a round of golf.

An airport is a long-term project, but it is difficult not to wonder if the location of the Devanahalli airport has altered Mandakalli airport’s paradigm even before the tarmac can be tarred.