On January 5 Goa finally got its new airport —the Manohar International Airport in Mopa — off the ground two decades after conception. The first IndiGo flight landed with a water cannon salute to mark the occasion. The new private facility has created a buzz in the Pernem district of the state. Besides new jobs at the facility, it has boosted the local economy through trickle-down effects that large infrastructure projects invariably lead to.
Having taken a few flights in and out of Mopa this year, one can’t help but compare it to the old Goa International Airport at Dabolim — perhaps an unfair and somewhat futile comparison. But it’s an inevitable one.
Dabolim’s Only Advantage
Dabolim, from a passenger perspective was not the best option even when the terminal constructed by the Airport Authority of India (AAI) was brand new. I happened to fly in and out of Goa in June 2014 — after the terminal opened for public use — and still remember the shoddy state of affairs within just six months: dirty carpets, overflowing dustbins and many design flaws at the terminal to boot.
The facility is currently undergoing a much-required overhaul with an investment of Rs 256 crore — it will probably see many overruns — which many state senior bureaucrats argue is a waste of money (and a ploy for the bureaucracy to earn some money on the side).
I beg to differ. Just to keep running at the same spot, forget competing with its Northern cousin, Dabolim needs constant attention, upkeep and investment. No amount of money spent on it will bring it on par with what one has now come to expect with private airports in India. Earlier, the benchmarks were airports in Dubai, Singapore and so on. That changed with the privatisation of Indian airports. Moreover, residents of South Goa definitely can’t manage without it.
The Dabolim facility currently holds a distinct advantage due to its proximity and smoother access to the capital, Panjim—a key consideration for politicians and bureaucrats. As a focus area for the state, accessibility from the capital is more convenient for the time being, given that Mopa is situated to the North and contends with pockets of heavy traffic. In an effort to enhance connectivity, Ashoka Buildcon has initiated the construction of a six-and-a-half-kilometer six-lane road linking the new airport to the main highway, promising faster access within an estimated two-year timeframe.
If airlines and other stakeholders need evidence on why the AAI needs to be kept at several arm’s length from building, operating and running India’s airports, then the greenfield facility built and operated by GMR and the Dabolim facility, built or rather revamped by AAI but owned by the Indian Navy, offer a study in contrast. It's worth noting that Mopa, being greenfield, benefits from ample available land, while Dabolim, a brownfield airport established in 1955 for a different purpose, faces significant land constraints. Moreover, both are creatures from different eras so a comparison is somewhat unfair.
What’s Exciting About Mopa?
Having said that, there are several factors that airlines, pilots and others are excited about at Mopa. Dabolim doesn’t offer these and can’t aspire to, no matter what it does. One, Mopa has a brand new and much-needed temperature-controlled cargo facility, a feature absent at Dabolim. This is expected to help with smoother movement of goods and bring in much-needed employment in the state. Availability of slots throughout the day has helped airlines introduce better timings for arrivals that allow tourists to take full advantage of their vacation time, another problem at Dabolim where slots are often unavailable due to naval sorties.
Over the years, commanders have often told me that the new private airports in India are akin to Indian weddings: a bit over the top, and flashy but not necessarily well organised or well thought out. They argue that they’d be happier with one less painting or chandelier in the terminal and better airside and runway aids like higher category instrument landing systems (ILS) that help navigate better, especially in poor weather conditions.
On the airside at Mopa, commanders say things are much brighter, quite literally. Although there are a few airside challenges due to the winds — IndiGo was not permitting first officers with inadequate experience to land to begin with — the category 1 ILS will help with visibility, which tends to fall significantly during monsoons and in poor weather conditions.
If there’s more light, there’s also lots more room. There’s a full-length parallel taxiway, which can double up as a runway in an emergency. There are two rapid exit taxiways and six cross taxiways, several aerobridges and parking bays, all expandable. The airport can comfortably accommodate wide bodies although not the A380 as of now.
But the biggest relief for passengers and drivers who ferry people to and from airports is the parking facility at Mopa. Dabolim airport has an ill-planned and executed multi-level parking that remains unusable and every time one finds space to park one feels a sense of achievement. At Dabolim, public money was spent on building parking facilities but as it happens all too often typical babu style, the facility never materialised for active use. Besides, this very welcome feature — where one can actually park one’s car with relative ease — and walk to the terminal, the structure itself is far better planned, with its over 60,000 sq meter expanse, 18 check-in counters and four self-baggage drop ones, all of which can be expanded to handle 33 million passengers eventually. More in line with airports around the world, Mopa also has the option of a direct bus service for passengers to and from Panjim, which is both a great idea and a disappointment as frequency remains too low as of now.
Moreover, like all the private airports, Mopa is a zero carbon footprint facility with a 5 MW solar power generating capacity and claims to be recharging groundwater with rainwater harvesting techniques. Over 5 lakh native tree saplings were planted with the hope of keeping the surroundings green. While this sounds good on paper, it’s hard to know whether it offsets the environmental costs of building at this site, a controversy that delayed its construction for quite a while.
So, my answer for all those who are flying in and out of Goa and looking for advice on which airport to patronise, I say Mopa is far easier and the calmer to depart from whereas, for arrival, it really doesn’t matter as one’s interaction on arrival is too little to fret over. Land, reach the terminal, pick up your bag and scoot. Yet for all stakeholders, it offers a valuable lesson in why some things are best left in the hands of private players.