When Will We Soar?

When Will We Soar?

Anonymous | Jan 27, 2020

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-The Mango Guy

When people talk about helicopters and stadiums, the first thought that comes to our minds is MS Dhoni. But our institute witnessed something different during the convocation this year. An actual helicopter landed in DTS. The graduated students who remember the incident involving Sunidhi Chauhan and a chopper will surely find this news rather amusing. But the football team which was in DTS didn’t feel the same.

PIC for Campus Business, Prof. Samir K Patra opined that “ if the students try for an airport than a restaurant in Rourkela, it would be a bigger achievement (than opening a restaurant in NIT campus)” in a recent interview to Monday Morning. This statement reminded me of my responsibility for my institute. Indeed! When it comes to restaurants on campus, students have already shown their skills with the start-up Srinivasa Lunchroom (SLR). Thus, I decided to understand why NIT Rourkela (NITR) is so obsessed with an airport, and what is the reality surrounding it.

Let's first understand something. Rourkela already has a domestic airport. It was termed a "commercial airport" instead of a private airport in just the first week of January last year. Flights were supposed to have started from the summer itself, but this never happened. Before going into the reasons for it, let's see why NITR is so desperate for an airport.

The first truth we need to address is that compared to other NITs, our college lags in placements. The variety of employment opportunities we get on campus, and the quality in terms of the median salary are both lagging when compared to other NITs which are ranked lower than us in the NIRF rankings. The administration has repeatedly stated that the Public Perception factor is the reason for the poor results from NITR in various national and international rankings, as we continue to slip places in most of them. Many labs in NITR are under-equipped due to the sheer cost of transportation of equipment and personnel from major hubs like Kolkata. Some of the damaged essential equipment like projectors are often not repaired until months in spite of the speedy administrative clearances from our institute due to the time it takes for skilled technicians to reach our college.

In fact, some technicians have rejected coming to our college due to the travel time. Our students sometimes hate the long travel time. Many of them joke about how NITRians spend their New Year nights in trains and buses, leading to a fundamental question: Does there exist a glass ceiling in our college? Can only an aeroplane break this glass and restart our race to the top? Maybe. But if a plane is our only hope, then we first need to understand the logistics of running an airport and an airline. It is especially important in the current scenario, where many Indian airlines are running up huge debts. Even a big player like Jet Airways completely collapsed!

An airport can be run either by private or public firms. In India, the public firm would be the Airports Authority of India (AAI). Private/Joint-venture airports include Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Delhi, Kochi and Mumbai. Private airports typically have better service, while public airports usually charge less. Now, any airport needs to earn income to sustain itself. Not considering the case of airports which are specially for cargo flights, airports typically make money off the passengers and the aeroplanes. Passenger spending in smaller airports is the least, while the amount that airlines need to pay the airport for using the services of the airport like the runway space, the hangar, the crew area etc. is higher.

Thus, airlines typically don't want to fly to smaller airports because they don't stand to make any money. The exceptions include the cases where the government pays the airline to fly, or when the airport is in an excellent location to connect. Even ignoring these two aspects, the very availability of the skilled local labour which might be sitting jobless for a significant chunk of the day due to the low number of flights asks a big question.

Rourkela is only a domestic airport. It has no real value as a connection airport, as more trustworthy airports like Ranchi would be preferred by airlines for longer routes. As for the government paying the airlines to fly to Rourkela, it is quite unlikely on a long-term basis. The reason for this lies in the passengers that are most likely to travel. While we might think that the government would want more officials of the Rourkela Steel Plant or SAIL to fly to Rourkela, we need to understand that the entire region is brimming with multiple steel plants. The reason why they seem to be so far away from each other is due to poor connectivity in terms of transport infrastructure due to which, the government would be far more inclined to improve infrastructure, to transport both the raw materials and the finished goods. This means that improvement of railways and roadways would be a higher priority to maximize the productivity of the plant, rather than spend billions on an airport which neither stands to make money nor stands to serve enough passengers to attract any airline. An aeroplane doesn't have the same freight capacity as trains and trucks!

An example of this could be Joda, the industrial town in Kendujhar district. Even if the productivity of the plant there would soar to unimaginable heights, the roads leading to it will still see two overturned trucks every night. The train passing through it will again run 2 hours late and thus, the government will try to develop those infrastructures. While Rourkela might seem well off in this regard, it is not nearly enough to create a business environment which warrants the urgency of an airport.

Now, let's consider the development mantra. The airline business is both highly stable and turbulent. A single missile strike in a Middle Eastern nation could send the oil prices soaring. Airline crew can never overwork at any cost, due to the safety constraints. An airline would want their aircraft to be airborne as long as possible because while sitting on a runway for an hour, it is earning nothing. Instead, it is eating up resources in maintenance and simple parking fees. The simple fact is that no airline would willingly come to Rourkela without huge incentives from the government. Whenever an airline gets such levels of incentives, the service quality in terms of flight delays and cancellations will be poor, as observed in the statistics of smaller airports.

The Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik (UDAN) scheme was launched about three years ago to heavily subsidize flying to airports which are literally in the middle of nowhere. To put it bluntly, the central government took up the job of constructing/develop new airports in select "cities" around India, and then heavily subsidize airlines to fly to these destinations for a base period of 10 years. These benefits include those given by Central and State governments, including no parking fee, reduction of VAT, reduction of charges on services, free security and skilled individuals. While this might seem like a fairy tale scheme that could boost the claim for an airport in Rourkela, the reality so far has been a success rate of less than 20%. Merely hoping for domestic traffic and leisure to bring enough passengers is wishful thinking. The airport developed in Jharsuguda is an example.

But does this mean that Rourkela getting an airport is impossible? No. Eventually, Rourkela will get an airport. But it is up to the institute to hold on to its national ranking until that day. Our NIRF ranking in Engineering category has been falling from 12 to 15 to 16 consecutively. Acquiring research resources is tougher every day, with more and more students ordering them on e-commerce websites after looking at what the institute has to offer. If we want to attract good companies, then we need to stay put until the distant day when we get a fully-functioning commercial airport. And our target for the year 2025 itself is wrought with difficulties, the most urgent of which is the financial difficulties which force our institute to have so few security guards and premium Grammarly accounts.

In conclusion, for students to try for an airport in Rourkela is like asking the institute the status of various campus buildings under construction. Even if they are completed and handed over, making them operational will take more than just the contribution of the students. It is up to the administrative wings to implement smart decisions befitting their responsibilities. Students can create restaurants as start-ups, but expecting them to spring up airports is just a golden dream.

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