Two million expats upbeat on move to resume wide-bodied aircraft operation from Kozhikode


Saudi Gazette

— Air India, India’s national carrier, is announcing incentives to passengers at a time when India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation is reportedly working on a plan to resume the operations of wide-bodied aircraft from the Kozhikode International Airport. Around two million Gulf expatriates from the northern Malabar region of Kerala use Kozhikode airport, which was the seventh busiest airport in India in terms of passenger traffic and is often touted as the gateway to Malabar.

The suspension of wide-bodied aircraft has affected hundreds of thousands of expatriates and their families living in the Gulf, especially in the western region of Saudi Arabia, mainly during the last three summer school vacations that also coincided with their major festivals of Eid and Onam. They were forced to rely on connecting flights after the suspension of direct services of jumbo flights between Kozhikode and international destinations. There has also been intense pressure on the authorities to restore the position of Kozhikode as the embarkation point for Haj pilgrims from the state that had been shifted to Cochin airport in 2015 after serving for several years.

Air India and Saudi Arabian Airlines operated direct flights, using wide-bodied aircraft, between Jeddah and Kozhikode, a major hub in south India. This busiest direct route was suspended for the repair and re-carpeting of the Kozhikode airport since May 2015, forcing Air India, Saudia and Emirates to divert their jumbo flights to Cochin International Airport, 155 km away. Air India later started operating connection service to Kozhikode via Mumbai.

Even after the re-carpeting and strengthening of the airport runway was over, the wide-bodied aircraft is yet to be given permission to resume services. The Airports Authority of India (AAI), which operates the airport, had undertaken a Rs.1 billion overhaul of the extensively damaged tabletop runway. After a long interval of 18 months, the airport was opened for round-the-clock service by the end of 2016 with a revised runway schedule, but services of large aircraft remain suspended.

Air India, which had enjoyed a market stake of around 57 percent of the Jeddah –Kozhikode route, was the heaviest loser following the suspension of wide-bodied aircraft. Now it’s stake has dropped to 12-20 percent. Air India lost business to Gulf carriers such as Etihad Airways and Oman Air that have hubs in their Gulf destinations and from their hubs, they operate small-bodied aircraft to Kozhikode.

In a press statement, issued on Aug. 21, J.T. Radhakrishna, director of Kozhikode airport, announced about the positive developments regarding resumption of wide-bodied aircraft. According to the statement, a panel from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and other senior officers of AAI assessed the requirement for operation of wide-bodied aircraft to the airport after visiting the airport facilities in April this year. The panel recommended in its report that Boeing 777-200 aircraft appears to be compatible for operations at the airport and that a compatible study has to be carried out, in collaboration between the concerned stakeholders, for operations of this aircraft. AAI, the operator of the airport, would take a final decision on allowing operations of this aircraft on the basis of the study’s findings; Radhakrishna said adding that 250-300 passengers can fly on this aircraft to long distance stations including Jeddah.

According to reports, AAI has convened a meeting of the airline companies in Chennai on Sept 15 to discuss about the prospect of resuming wide-bodied aircraft operation from Kozhikode. At the same time, the authorities are also seriously taking into account of the safety concerns following the shortening of the existing length of the table top runway of 2,850 meter to 2,700 meters and increase the runway end safety area (RESA) to 240 meter from the existing 90 meter. They are of the view that all code E aircraft cannot operate on a reduced runway.

The new developments came amid the ongoing agitations and legal battle to save the airport by the Malabar Development Forum (MDF) and a number of mass organizations based in Kerala and their affiliated bodies in the Gulf. Recently, a delegation of MDF, headed by its President K.M. Basheer, met Radhakrishna and thanked for the initiatives taken in this regard. K.C. Abdurahman, chairman of Saudi Indian Air Travelers Association (SIATA), also welcomed the move, asking the authorities to speed up the process to resume wide-bodied aircraft operation so as to end the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Keralites who are jittery all through the last three peak summer vacation seasons.