Mumbai airport shutting down runways: It would have smarter to give early warning than causing last-minute chaos

No one can sensibly cavil over the need for runway maintenance. Runways suffer the usual wear-and-tear and need to be repaired. The partial two-days closure of the Mumbai airport for a pre-monsoon check is the right thing to do. If you do not have swift drainage and refresh the tiny grooves in the runway that sluice rainwater away, water gathers and the risk of aquaplaning and a possible accident are very high. Planes touching down can skim off the surface of the water without obtaining purchase very much like the stone flung on water scenario — like Qantas Flight 1 in Bangkok 1999 coming to land in rain.

Getting the runway into order before the monsoon is acceptable. The fact that it resulted in a chaotic cancellation of 120-plus flights and a ‘tailback’ effect that will now come into play as the backlog is cleared is not. This return to normal ops can take several days and "regretting the inconvenience" is not enough.

 Mumbai airport shutting down runways: It would have smarter to give early warning than causing last-minute chaos

A file image of Mumbai International airport. PTI

The repair-work is a highly technical undertaking and has to be done to rigorous specifications. They are not filling potholes. Ensuring the integrity of the strip and minimising surface tension calls for a certain exactness. As such the planning and the skilled manpower as well as transportation of specialised machines is called for and therein lies the rub. The closure windows should have been made public information weeks in advance. That way passengers could have reworked schedules and avoided bookings on these days rather than make frantic calls to carriers who, if they do answer, know precious little about what is going on.

Why was it kept a state secret? In November 2017, Delhi was closed in similar fashion but the alert was made public by media more than a week in advance. Private aerodrome company MIAL made this announcement of intent to close practically the same day instead of having given the adversely affected airlines a fair amount of time to rework its schedules:

"The main runway of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA) handled by GVK MIAL, will be non-operational on 9 and 10 April, between 1100 hrs and 1700 hrs on account of pre-monsoon maintenance activities." This grand gesture in sharing information was issued about an hour before the commencement of the runway closure.

The odd part is that no one is really questioning the ham-handed fashion in which the closure has been handled. The loss to the airlines and the collective destruction of several million manhours by passengers forced to freeze their travel plans is an issue and cannot be wished away.

Are we to believe that the Mumbai International Airport Limited entity in conjunction with the Airport Authority of India had an epiphany in the middle of the night and got their act together within hours thereby justifying their decision? Some TV channels quoted an ANI report as their source for announcing the closure. What really should have happened is that days before the media should have been harnessed and the shutdown should have been made public.

Carriers shouldn’t have been putting out bulletins just hours before the actual closure because they had no time to reschedule more than the customary 35 percent of flights were hit. This sort of sudden shutdown occurs usually after a crash that blocks the runway or a force majeur weather condition compelling the declaration of an emergency like a snowstorm or the ash cloud from Iceland some years back.

Last month the Phuket airport was closed within 24 hours because major cracks and fissures were discovered at one end of the runway necessitating an emergency decision. This was not the case in Mumbai. There was no emergency. The monsoon is not a surprise visitor, it is an annual season, the planning is so flawed and the indifference to public comfort and inconvenience simply baffling.

Maintenance is carried out at all at all the 17,800 airports in the world. In Dubai they plan to carry out an ungrade in 2019 and not only has the announcement been made but the planning to ensure minimum negative fallout is already a priority. A little bit of consideration saves so much hassle and money.

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Updated Date: Apr 11, 2018 11:59:05 IST