When you speak about Mangalore airport, many people connect it with the 2010 air crash that claimed 158 lives.
Others, who have seen the airport, admire its infrastructure. Old timers recall the visit of Jawaharlal Nehru to inaugurate the airport in 1951.
After six decades of operation, the Union Government has now decided to make Mangalore an international airport.
The Cabinet meet held on October 4 decided to accord international status to Mangalore airport, along with four others. Of course, it was one of the long-pending demands of the people in the region.
The Mangalore airport, which started with the operations of Dacota flights in 1951, was one of the major projects initiated by the late Ullal Srinivas Mallya, the then Member ofParliament from the region. Other projects initiated by Mallya were New Mangalore Port Trust and National Institute of Technology, Karnataka, among others.
In 1970, the airport was developed to handle Boeing 737.
Though the airport project expansion was initiated in 1989, it did not gather steam, and did not go forward for many years.
People of the region started feeling the need for a direct connectivity between Mangalore and Gulf destinations many years ago. However, the then existing runway of 1,600 metres was not suitable for handling big aircraft.
The project to expand Mangalore airport gained momentum in the early part of the first decade of the new millennium. In 2004-05, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) initiated work on the construction of a second runway. And in 2006, the airport was ready with a 2,450-metre-long second runway. That paved the way for Mangalore airport to handle wide-bodied aircraft.
Following this, in May 2006, Mangalore was announced as customs aerodrome. The status of customs aerodrome was essential for Mangalore to operate flights to international destination, especially to Gulf countries.
And it was a dream come true for many Mangaloreans when the first Air India Express flight from Dubai landed in Mangalore on October 3, 2006, placing Mangalore on the international aviation map.
As of now, the international passenger profile from Mangalore airport mainly consists of non-resident Indians (NRIs) working in Gulf countries. A majority of these passengers are from Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts in Karnataka, and Kasaragod and to some extent Kannur districts in Kerala.
In the past six years, international passengers contributed more than one-fourth of the total passenger traffic at Mangalore airport.
Their share was 20.44 per cent in the calendar year 2007. It went up to 26.71 per cent in 2008 and a maximum of 31.43 per cent in 2009.
The air crash in 2010 had some impact with the international passenger share coming down to 28.71 per cent that year. However, the share of international passengers started moving up again with the airport handling 29.04 per cent of them in 2011.
However, a study conducted by AAI before the establishment of the new terminal building in Mangalore had estimated the total passenger figures to reach 3.55 lakh passengers by 2009-10 and 4.31 lakh by 2013-14!
Air India Express is the only carrier that connects Mangalore with destinations in West Asian . At present, Mangalore is connected with destinations such as Abu Dhabi, Muscat, Dubai, Kuwait, Doha and Qatar in the Gulf region.
Rajesh Sequera, coordinator of the UAE-based Karnataka NRI Forum, said that the international tag to Mangalore airport would help private carriers from the country to operate from Mangalore to international destinations.
Kishor Cariappa, a social media consultant in Muscat, said that the international tag would help more carriers from Gulf and Asia to connect with Mangalore. “NRIs from Gulf will be happy to fly in professionally-run carriers,” he said.
Opportunities also lie in promoting education tourism to connect Mangalore with other international destinations, Sequera said. Both Mangalore and Manipal have a lot of educational institutions offering professional education in various streams.
Cariappa said that Malaysia and Singapore could be the target destinations for airlines to explore from Mangalore.
Explaining this, he said Manipal University, in Udupi district, has a majority of students from Malaysia. In fact, Manipal University claims that every fourth doctor in Malaysia is an alumnus of Manipal. A direct connectivity to Malaysia, at least once in a week, can be thought of in such circumstances.
Another destination that can attract passengers is Singapore. Cariappa said that NRIs travelling to Europe, Australia or the US use Singapore as a hub. This should be explored.
He said that there is enough scope for medical tourism from Gulf into hospitals in Mangalore, Udupi and Manipal. The crowd that travels to Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai will head to Mangalore, if it is marketed well, he said.
The president of Kanara Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mohammed Ameen, said that the air cargo complex at the Mangalore airport is yet another dream of the people of this region.
He said that an air cargo complex will help explore export and import potential of commodities such as vegetables and fruits, processed food, chilled items, machineries and garments from Mangalore. Such a cargo complex would help in the quick transportation of perishable commodities that are in high demand in Gulf countries.
There is no need for additional infrastructure for this project, as the infrastructure at the old terminal building is lying idle after the commissioning of the new integrated terminal building.
Ameen said that though infrastructure for this project is already in place, it is still awaiting recommendations of the Department of Customs to the Central Board of Excise and Customs to enable it to issue necessary notification required under certain sections of the Customs Act 1962 officially to declare the air cargo complex to commence operation of airfreight services.
The proposed airport at Kannur, which is situated around 140 km south of Mangalore, is likely to make some impact in the coming years. A majority of international passengers from northern Kerala, who are dependent on Mangalore airport for connectivity now, can opt for Kannur once it materialises.
Sequera said in such a situation steps should be taken to explore the strengths of Mangalore to market the international airport.
With domestic tourism getting a fillip, airports can be competitive even though they are closely located, Cariappa added.