According to Indian aviation records, the oldest civil airport of India is the Juhu Airport, which was built in 1928 and is on the way of being defunct now. Believe it or not, there is another aiport in Maharashtra that was built TEN years earlier and is not only still operational but grand expansion plans are slated for it. Yes, I am talking about the Nagpur Airport, now called The Babasaheb Ambedkar International airport. According to Wikipedia -“This Airport was commissioned during the First World War in 1917-18. The old buildings at the airport were renovated during the Second World War, when it was used as a staging base. Due to brisk traffic at the airport new terminal buildings featuring facilities of refreshment, retiring rooms, rest-rooms, book stalls and visitor’s galleries were constructed in 1953.”
In the years following independence and when various systems were still being put in place, Nagpur Airport gained great importance for the Indian Postal Services. Sonegaon airport was the hub of the unique “Night Air Mail Service” wherein four planes left from Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras every night with a mail load from their region and returned to their home base in the early morning, after exchanging the mail at Nagpur
It is used to be a sight worth viewing. At exactly 12 midnight four huge planes from the four corners of the country would land in Nagpur and line up majestically next to each other. Then for a few hours there would be frenetic activity as bags of mails would be unloaded, sorted out and re loaded. There used to be crowds of ‘visitors’ and viewers every night at Sonegaon to look at this magnificent sight. If you were a Nagpurian and had visitors from other cities, even abroad it was de rigour to take them to the aiport at night to take in this scene and marvel about the ‘importance and uniqueness of Nagpur’!
The service was operated from January 1949 until October 1973.
Nagpur also had one of the first flying clubs of the country and many pilots that went on to become Commanders in Indian Airlines and Air India began their flying training in this city.
Even among the times of the monopoly of Indian Airlines in the Aviation sector, Nagpur continued to be busy with the domestic carrier trying out many combination destinations out of Nagpur. During such ‘experiments’ one could fly from Nagpur to Srinagar – with one halt at Delhi – from Nagpur to Vasco and even Nagpur to Andaman Nicobar with a halt at Calcutta!
For reasons unknown, or perhaps as Nagpur gradually lost its glimmer, the flights reduced and halted even as other airlines began operating and this sector was opened up for private players too. Airports around Nagpur, like the one at Hyderabad for instance, went from being an insignificant little thing to undoubtedly one of the best and busiest airports of the country. From being the capital of Central Provinces and later M.P. Nagpur got the dubious distinction of being the only “second capital” in India and soon became like the neglected and unwanted second wife and got dropped from the drawing boards of Planners, it seems.
Then some one thought of MIHAN a decade ago and since the fulcrum of this grand vision was the Nagpur Airport which was sought to be re launched as an international hub, we waited with baited breath for miracles to happen. And waited and waited. A few international flights were started, like the one to Thailand,and soon after discontinued. The buidlings were shifted, built, got some cosmetic changes, but progress halted afterwards. It became victim to tussle between State and Central Govts and as we all know two constituents of the Ruling coalition of the state.
Meanwhile, from the Airport Authority of India, the custody of the aiport was shifted to a joint venture between AAIL and MADC to a company called Mihan India Ltd. MIL was supposed to have been a special purpose vehicle with a mandate to run it for five years and handed over to a private bidder by the end of 2014.
As Mr. Anil Kumar, Senior Director of MIL informed Nagpur Today, his company has only had a mandate for looking after Safety and security and giving a time frame for employees of the Airport Authority to either be absorbed in MIL before it is privatized or be moved to other areas. Despite this limited scope for improvement they have undertaken tasks like re carpeting of the runway and building of shops and facilities for customers on the first floor of the Departures wing.
He also said that the Requirement for Qualifications for privatization have already been completed and they could be floating the tenders for requesting bids any time soon.
Speaking with others in MIL informally, NT also learned that till privatization does not happen, development of Nagpur aiport to its fullest potential will not happen because of cut throat competition from other airports who have already been privatized and who do not Nagpur to divert their business and their earnings away.
Nagpur Today learnt that though there is a lot of scope to build Nagpur as a Trading and Transport hub which will attract foreign tourists too the concerned Ministry is not signing the required Bilateral Agreement that will allow foreign Airlines to include Nagpur as their Indian destinations. We learnt that Singapore Airlines has shown keen interest in having direct flights to Nagpur as also some airlines of USA, but for lack of the agreement they cannot do so.
Though Nagpur is not very industrially developed yet, it is a thriving trading centre and there are many Nagpurians who go on foreign holidays every year. Their numbers will definitely go up if foreign airlines begin operating from Nagpur and the city will benefit too. More direct flights from abroad will bring in more tourists and Tiger Tourism will get a boost too.
As things stand today, there is only one international airline Air Arabia that has a direct flight to Sharjah. Other domestic airlines operate flights to a handful destinations like Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Raipur, Banglore and Hyderabad. One stop flights are offered to Kolkatta, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Indore and even Srinagar – on paper at least. But over the last few years in fact number of choices have decreased rather than increasing.
Nagpur Airport it seems is like the Cindrella waiting for Prince Charming to come with the right shoe that will transform her and change her destiny.