Conflict of Interest

Nine years after its closure, talks on the reopening of HAL airport to commercial flights have been revived and hopes of a positive outcome are high

Issue: 5 / 2017By B.K. PandeyPhoto(s): By Bombardier

An airport located in the heart of the city of Bengaluru under the operational control of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has been in the news in the recent past over the issue of restarting commercial flights.

HAL airport was constructed in 1940 by Walchand Hirachand the founder of Hindustan Aircraft Company to support his aircraft manufacturing centre. The airport was used by the British in 1942 for the Allied Air Forces to project air power against Japan during the World War II. In 1964, the airport was acquired by new Defence Public Sector Undertaking HAL. Civil flights from HAL airport in the domestic sector commenced in 1980 and international flights in 1997. On commissioning of Bangalore International Airport (BIA), under the Concession Agreement, no two commercial airports can exist within a radius of 150 km. Thus, all scheduled flights operating from HAL airport, were transferred to BIA. However, HAL airport with its elaborate infrastructure was available round the clock to operators of business or private aircraft. It also continued to be used for test flights of HAL-produced aircraft as well as by Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment of the Indian Air Force where test pilots are trained.

The stoppage of commercial flights at HAL airport triggered reactions from different quarters. Since May 2008, there have been several attempts to pressurise the government to permit HAL airport to commence operation of commercial flights at least in the domestic segment. Soon after commissioning of BIA, the first to react were some 20,000 employees of the Airports Authority of India (AAI) who went on strike against the closure of HAL airport to commercial flights and demanded restoration of status quo; but to no avail.

Meanwhile, a petition was filed in the Karnataka High Court challenging the closure of HAL airport to commercial operations and also the July 5, 2004, Concession Agreement between the BIAL, the promoters of the new international airport at Devanhalli, the state and central governments. The High Court however, directed the government to renegotiate the issue of reopening of HAL airport with BIAL and refused to stay the notification regarding closure of the HAL airport. The High Court had recorded the submission of Central government counsel that HAL airport can be reopened if the parties agree after the renegotiation process is over. The Centre had sought 12 weeks time for that exercise.

Subsequently, the solicitor general gave an undertaking to the apex court that the Centre will renegotiate with BIAL. In 2011, a citizen’s forum in Bengaluru launched a campaign to pressurise the government of Karnataka to restart commercial flights at HAL airport and submitted a memorandum to this effect. In 2014, HAL sent a formal request to the Ministry of Civil Aviation stating that HAL had lost airport revenue of 1,200 crore in the last five years. Manohar Parrikar, the former Minister of Defence appealed to the Minister of Civil Aviation to reopen HAL airport to commercial flights citing its convenient location in the city as also the heavy loss of revenue; but the government refused to relent.

In 2015, a public interest litigation (PIL) petition was filed by the Employees’ Union of AAI seeking reopening of HAL Airport for commercial operations. The petition stated that in a period of seven years since the closure of the airport to commercial traffic, HAL had incurred a loss of 1,480 crore. While HAL has been clamouring quite understandably for reopening HAL airport for commercial flights, the Court pointed out an anomaly that weakened the case. Way back in 1990, the then Chairman HAL had written to the Central Government expressing concern over hazard to air safety on account of civil and military air operations simultaneously from the same airfield. The Chairman HAL had recommended that civil air operations be discontinued at HAL airport and relocated at some other airfield. At that point in time, the Chairman HAL possibly had the IAF airfield at Yelahanka in mind. This definitely weakened the case for resuming commercial flights at HAL leading to a stalemate.

Latest reports indicate that nine years after its closure, talks on the reopening of HAL airport to commercial flights have been revived. The talks with the stakeholders are in an advanced stage and hopes for a positive outcome are high. And if all goes well, the airport will be thrown open for commercial operations in the domestic segment, hopefully, in not too distant a future. Finally, there is some light at the end of the tunnel!