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Flawed by design?


The Bangalore International Airport was recently pulled up for ‘faulty’ design and construction. Ar Apurva Bose Dutta speaks to experts to Get a perspective on the burning issue.

The Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) was recently in the news for all the wrong reasons. A joint legislative committee (JLC) enquiring into the airport’s ‘faulty’ design and construction termed the BIA below global standards.

The report titled ‘Examination of construction of the Bangalore International Airport’ recommended that the private partners in the consortium for the construction of the airport should be blacklisted and not considered for any work by the government for a minimum of five years owing to the ‘poor quality of workmanship’ that has been shown in the project.

It also said that ‘appropriate action’ should be taken against the officers involved in important decisions regarding the project. BIA Ltd is a consortium of Unique Zurich Airport, Siemens Project Ventures and Larsen & Toubro (L&T), with the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and the Karnataka government as stakeholders.

Not by design
The committee listed many flaws starting from the design approval stage of the project. Concerns were expressed over the design of an ‘industrial shed’ and over the absence of a structure depicting the culture of Karnataka.

The report said that the terminal building is already saturated as it has not been designed properly. It questions the ‘very premise of the public-private partnership model on which the airport project was built’ as the private equity holders are themselves service providers in BIAL, leading to a case of conflict of interest.

The imposition of user development fee was criticised, and the report demanded immediate action to recover Rs 100 crore drawn by BIAL in the form of Cenvat concessions.

The panel also suggested that the government should consider the AAI’s report to reopen the old HAL airport for short-distance flights. And it wanted the new airport to be named after Kempegowda, the founder of Bengaluru.

When contacted, the BIA authorities said that they have been in constant dialogue with the JLC and have supported them with all the requisite information. They also said that they will review the report and implement its recommendations.

Functional, but…
Quiz architects on the BIA design and they agree with the JLC on the design part. But they also agree that the Bengaluru airport is fairly functional.

“In form and aesthetics, BIA was not well researched and did not finish as it ought to have done, for an airport that claims to have international standards.

Infrastructure projects need to be architecturally designed without bowing to a misplaced sense of local pride or nostalgia, or looked upon as a mere engineering problem.

It is of prime importance that the identity of a consummate metropolis like Bengaluru is established first and used as a standard in all infrastructure designs around the city,” said V ‘Naresh’ Narasimhan, the principal architect for Venkataramanan Associates.

Architect Sathya Prakash Varanashi adds to that, “Compared to what I saw at Singapore or Bangkok ten years ago, BIA seems to be behind time. Functionally, it may be fairly efficient, it is quite simplified for a first-time visitor, as it doesn’t create awe.

Yet, let me add that a great opportunity has been reduced to a glass box. The architectural detailing needs much more attention, most glass roofs are dirty with water marks visible in many areas, and the external pedestrian pathways require wider space and shelter.”

BIA was planned when the existing HAL Airport became inadequate to accommodate the increasing number of passengers. The main advantage of HAL was its location, which was central to Bengaluru, whereas the BIA is almost 40 km away from Central Bengaluru.

“In its current location, size and nature, the HAL airport can no longer provide the standard or the infrastructure for Bengaluru’s constantly increasing aviation demands, but could serve as a smaller hub in future,” says Naresh.

Rajeev Chandrashekhar, who quit as a BIAL director in 2003, had consistently criticised the monopoly status of the airport authorities.

Praful Patel, the Union Minister for Civil Aviation himself, expressed his concern and resentment on the design, saying it was not comparable to even the Hyderabad airport. Patel still feels that the completion of the second phase would make BIAL look much better.

This project was never a smooth one. The original design went through changes many times, and the launch date was put off thrice due to controversies, cost over-runs, delays in setting up air traffic control, etc.

After the airport was functional, there were allegations of inadequate infrastructure facilities, deviations from the approved design and faulty angles of descent. This led to the formation of the JLC in September 2008. The second phase was to be commissioned in early 2009, but got postponed.

Environmental factors
Factors like the lack of canopy outside the terminal building, the distance between escalators and staircases inside, the airport and runway areas being lower than the surrounding areas, have all been topics of debate. Also, since the area around the BIA does not attract much precipitation, many architects feel that the project is not sustainable or environment-friendly.

Architect Brinda Kannan, senior partner, DKA Architects, who has been involved in designing various airports around the globe adds, “Airports around the world are designed to various global and local criteria. Though BIAL has made a decent effort, the airport does fall short when compared to international airports elsewhere.

The project fails to address smaller and more ‘Indian’ aspects of travelling. Today, when the world is talking about ‘going green’, I would have loved to see some efforts to make BIA a sustainable project.

Every international city has more than one airport – look at Chicago, New York, London. Why not use the infrastructure that already exists? Even 100 cars travelling 10km less every month means that much less traffic and less pollution! We have to start seeing the bigger picture!”

What now?
What added more to the confusion was that a day after the JLC report went to press, a Congress member of the panel said that this report had been signed by only seven out of the 20 committee members and was finalised without informing everyone. He wanted the report withdrawn.

So, a conclusion is yet to be drawn. BIAL is continuing with the second phase of the project – the construction of terminal building T2. The existing terminal building is also going to be expanded to accommodate 15 million passengers annually. Besides, a landscaping plan has been chalked out.

Interestingly, BIA was rated as high as 4.17 on a scale of 1 to 5 in an Airport Service Quality survey – a global benchmark programme that surveys airport performance standards – in the last quarter.

To be fair, many, including foreigners, have appreciated the airport in their blogs and for its clean and well-organised pick-up area, spacious departure terminal and the sprawling shopping arena.

And are there really any other international airports that reflect their state’s culture, as desired by the panel? Also, in all major cities of the world, aren’t international airports located a distance away from the city due to the large space they need? Maybe the accessibility of the old HAL airport spoiled us all.

In fact, the closure of the HAL airport has eased down the traffic in Indiranagar and the surrounding areas. Whereas BIA has eight aerobridges, nine remote bays, 53 check-in counters and parking space for 2,000 cars, the HAL airport didn’t even have a lounge for international business class passengers.

The airport recently received the ISO 14001:2004 certification, the internationally-recognised Environmental Management System (EMS) Standard. Despite being fairly functional, the design problems do exist – and with new international airports dotting the country, the BIA has stiff competition. We agree with Kannan: “BIAL is a step towards what can be a great gateway to our city. We just need to look closer and think harder!”

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June 2020
10 Jun 2020