Flight Plan

Ground reality: What goes into the making of an airport

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on May 28, 2019

New airports have been coming up across India in recent times. But what actually goes into choosing the location for an airport?

The last few years we’ve heard a lot of talk about new airports coming up in India. Hindon and Jewar near Delhi have been in the news, as has Mopa in Goa.

Andhra too has Nellore and Bhogapuram greenfield airports coming up in the State. Andhra, which has one international airport near Visakhapatnam, is planning to set up four modern international airports by 2022. At the end of last year, India had 101 operational airports although air traffic was concentrated among 15 airports, mostly in the metros and large cities.

All this activity has evoked interest in what actually goes into deciding where a new airport should come up.

The first requirement, of course, is large tracts of land that provide enough space for aircraft to take off and land, terminal buildings that should have eating places, shops selling a variety of products, a control tower, boundary wall to ensure safety and security at the airport as also space for offices and parking. Besides, if the airport has more than 15 aircraft movements an hour, then it also needs rapid exit taxiways, which too require land.

According to ACK Nair, Airport Director, Cochin International Airport, commissioning an airport with one runway with one terminal requires almost 1,250 acres of land. “If you need two runways, double it to 2,500 acres of land and so on. Having as much area as is possible is always good for commercial exploitation,” he says. For example, Delhi Airport, with three runways, is spread over 5,100 acres of land while the new airport in Mopa is going to come up on over 2,000 acres.

Getting such large tracts of land comes with its own hurdles. Many airport projects have been stuck because acquiring land is a huge problem. Take the case of Navi Mumbai airport, which has been in the works for decades. The non-availability of land has seen the commissioning date of the airport project being pushed back regularly.

The passenger base or the target group of people who will use the new airport instead of the existing one is also an important consideration though it is not the only factor that helps zero in on an airport’s location.

VP Agarwal, former Chairman, Airports Authority of India, says that the airport’s location depends on the economic activity in the region. “If an existing airport is getting saturated you will have to provide relief to the population looking forward to more connections,” Agarwal points out. Delhi airport is a case in point. Since the airport is operating at capacity, another airport has come up on the capital’s outskirts at the Indian Air Force airbase in Hindon. When Jewar airport becomes operational, it will be the second airport in the national capital region to accept domestic and international flights, easing the capacity at Delhi airport.

The location of a new airport also involves some complex technical processes. Planners have to check whether there are any obstructions, the wind direction and other aspects, including temperature, climate and elevation level, before an airport can be planned.

“These are critical factors which decide where an airport should come up. Another important factor is the condition of the terrain. Is it plain land or are there many ups and downs?” says Nair. Some airports in India, like those in Chennai and Pakyong (in Sikkim), have faced problems of terrain. “In Chennai there was no land... on one side there were hangars and on the other side there were Indian Oil depots. Then, while digging (for constructing the passenger building), we detected hard stone. Since it was close to a building we could not use detonation. It was also the first time that we were constructing a runway over a river, which could take the load of the heavy Boeing 777 aircraft. That was a challenge from the engineering viewpoint,” says Agarwal.

The area selected for the airport in Pakyong had hilly terrain for which the soil had to be cut and retained at a particular point to create a sufficient landing strip — a challenging task.

Experts stress that the quality of land is a major factor in determining how long it will take for an airport to come up. According to Agarwal, if it is flat terrain it can be done within three years. If it is undulating ground, it can take up to five years.

If it is hilly terrain, like Pakyong, then it will take longer as you have to do retaining wall work and earth work, which can at times take up to seven years.

There’s more to the runway

And then comes what is perhaps the most crucial part of an airport: the runway. When a runway is constructed it needs to be ensured that it has a good riding quality which means that it should be smooth. Since the runway has to take the weight of all sorts of aircraft, from a small aircraft seating, say, two people to the Airbus A-380, which can seat up to 550 passengers besides carrying cargo, the strength of the runway at various points has to be consistent, for which all runways have to be designed according to the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

How thick the runway should be depends on the soil condition. “If the soil is very bad then the structure of the runway has to be very strong, for which you will also need to stabilise the soil,” says an expert. International airports are generally long-haul ones that need a longer runway. “That way, traditionally, if anyone is constructing a 9,000 feet runway it can be scaled up later to 12,000 feet or 14,000 feet to meet increasing traffic demands,” adds another expert.

Published on May 28, 2019

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