CHENNAI: The proposed greenfield airport at Sriperumbudur may not complement but be an impediment to the functioning of the existing Chennai airport. The new airport, planned on 4,823 acres of land at Sunguvarchathiram in Sriperumbudur and Tiruvallur taluks, will lie on the air-corridor and on one of the designated holdover areas for aircraft approaching the current airport at Meenambakkam.
Though the government is going all out with the greenfield project, experts including pilots, air traffic controllers and officials of Airports Authority of India (AAI) are worried that its proximity to the existing airport will restrict the already congested airspace if both airports are used simultaneously.
The location of the proposed greenfield airport is close to the air corridor used by flights taking off and landing on the Pallavaram side of the primary runway of the existing airport. So if the two airports are going to be operational simultaneously, the efficiency of both will be crippled. This is because the Chennai airspace is already restricted by the presence of two limited flying areas - Tambaram, belonging to Indian Air Force, and Arakkonam, belonging to the Indian Navy.
"A new airport just 15 nautical miles away (state government says the distance is 25 nautical miles) from the Pallavaram end of the existing airport will provide minimal space to aircraft for manoeuvre," a senior AAI official said. Some officials are not ruling out the closure of the existing airport once the much larger and modern airport is commissioned. Though specific studies are yet to be carried out, the operations wing of AAI seems to have expressed their scepticism about the project, which means that the greenfield airport could be commissioned only at the cost of the existing airport - something that goes against the government announcement that the greenfield and the expanded Meenambakkam airports would function simultaneously.
Aircraft making their final approach to the existing airport have to be at a height of 1,800 ft to detect signals from the Instrument Landing System. Considering that almost all aircraft land in the city from the northwest or southwest, they would be flying low over Sriperumbudur, which is just 15 nautical miles away. Aircraft taking off from the primary runway will also fly over Sriperumbudur at a height of 3,500 ft before turning towards their destinations. "Once the new airport opens, the existing airport may not be able to use its 11,399-feet primary runway," said a pilot.
Operations at Meenambakkam airport will be further crippled because the restricted airspace over Tambaram and Arakkonam - where defence aircraft fly at 2,500 ft - is not available for use most of the time.
"In other words, the current airport will have to be shut down for safe, smooth and efficient operation of the greenfield airport," said Captain A Ranganathan, a retired pilot. He said the aircraft landing at the greenfield airport might also face the risk of being hit when migratory birds start arriving at Vedanthangal. "I don’t know if the environment ministry will give clearance," he added.
When contacted, K Ramalingam, chairman, AAI, said it was too early to discuss feasibility of having two airports as comprehensive studies were yet to be carried out.
Captain Vijay Kumar, secretary of Indian Commercial Pilots’ Association, said simultaneous operations of two airports would be difficult but not impossible. Abroad, there are cases of airports existing close by, but operations are handled in such a way that they do not clash, he said.