The New Bengaluru International Airport (BIA)

On the 24th of May, 2008, I made a trip to the new Bengaluru International Airport (BIA) at Devanahalli, Bangalore with a couple of friends. That being the very first day of the new airport’s operation, there was a heavy security presence all around and it somewhat appeared as if we were entering India’s equivalent of Area 51!

Based on my experience of getting to the airport as well as the airport itself, I thought of writing this comprehensive review. Listed below are various aspects of the new airport.

BIA Terminal 1 building

My friends in front of the new BIA Terminal building

Background:

  • Originally conceived in 1991 and tender awarded to a consortium led by Tatas.
  • Tatas walked out of the project in 1998 citing inordinate delays in clearance.
  • In 1999, a MoU was signed between Karnataka State Industries Development Corporation (KSIDC) and Airports Authority of India (AAI) and the tender was awarded to a consortium consisting of Siemens, Unique Zurich Airport and Larsen & Toubro.
  • These three, together with the Govt. of Karnataka and the Airports Authority of India, formed Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) to oversee the design and construction of the airport.

    BIAL and BIA logos

  • Project got final clearance in 2004 and construction commenced in 2005.
  • Despite knowing for several years that the airport was coming up at Devanahalli, the BBMP and BDA did precious little to improve the connectivity to the airport until January 2008, with only a few months to go. The much hyped rail link to BIA should have been ready by then.

Major features:

  • Looks good, although the Terminal is much smaller than many people expected it to be. Compared to the leading Asian airports like Singapore Changi Airport, Seoul Incheon Airport and so on, this airport is minuscule and has nothing that really stands out. However, the substantial use of glass in the design gives an airy and open feel inside the Terminal.I just wish the designers and the Govt. had bigger dreams about making this one of the top ten airports in the world in terms of size, design, facilities/services and flight frequency. In that sense, it is a huge letdown and displays our inability to think big.
  • Greenery and attractions in the airport complex are still being developed, which is rather surprising given that the airport opening was delayed by over two months and so all this should have been in place by then! Currently the area around the Terminal bears a desert-like appearance.
  • Website (http://www.bengaluruairport.com) is minimal by global airport standards, but sufficient. There is information on getting to and from the airport, transportation facilities available, guides on shopping and leisure facilities available and, most importantly, a real-time table showing the status of arriving and departing flights.
  • A brief mention about the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower, which is supposed to be the tallest in India. Unfortunately, co-ordination between the ATC and BIA doesn’t seem to be very good so far and that has led to delays in flights landing and taking off. Pretty sad…

Facilities:

  • The 53 check-in counters and 18 self check-in terminals make checking in a breezy affair. Unlike the old HAL airport, where one had to stand in a long serpentine queue to get their check-in luggage screened in the solitary X-ray machine, here one can directly proceed to the counters for check-in and deposit their luggage there. Upon finding any disallowed items or in case of excess weight, passengers will be called via the public address system.
  • More departure gates (about 14) and aerobridges (about 9) as compared to the old HAL airport, which is welcome. However, the seating capacity and area at the gates is less which makes them congested and reduces the passenger comfort. Tch tch!
  • (Almost) Free Wi-Fi! (UPDATE: Not anymore! Read this) This was a long-standing grouse of passengers travelling from Bangalore. All major airports around the world provide this facility (I have seen this in Dubai, London Heathrow and Singapore airports), but surprisingly the old “IT City” HAL airport did not offer any such facility. To use it, you need to type “WIFI BIAL” on your mobile phone and SMS it to 56677 or 56767 (charges Rs. 3 per SMS), following which you will receive a password. Then connect to BIA’s Wi-Fi network from your laptop and enter the password when prompted. You can use the facility for 1 hour at a stretch, after which you must repeat the procedure to continue.
  • Ample parking space, divided into various parking zones, namely P1 (long-term parking i.e. over 4 hours), P2/P3 (general parking, i.e. around 2 hours) and P4 (drop-off and pickup). P4 is the costliest (first 10 minutes are free), followed by P2/P3 and P1 and proximity from the Terminal is in the same order, with P4 being closest. Parking lots are well designed (but adequate signboards are lacking) and have an international look about them.
  • Food outlets, though good, are few and very expensive compared to normal city rates, which is disappointing. No doubt, food at airports is usually sold at a premium, but certainly not to such an extent as to make it virtually unaffordable for many! In any case, the smallish Terminal building pretty much limits the number of shops and eateries you can have anyway!
  • Same case with shopping outlets. Very few stores and certainly not adequate for an airport which is said to be India’s answer to major air hubs across the world such as Dubai, Frankfurt, Singapore, London, etc. Once again, very uninspiring thinking from a nation that is surging ahead in every sphere.
  • Toilets are small and urinals pots are few and clearly not adequate, which is actually shocking! Yikes! I really don’t know what to say here. What were they thinking??

Route:

The road all the way to BIA was good once we passed the Hebbal flyover. The stretch between Mekhri Circle and Hebbal flyover is a complete mess, as it is being widened (in a very ungainly manner, just like the Golf Course road outside Le Meridien Hotel) and construction is on in full swing.

Even after Hebbal flyover there are about three signals, each of which have the potential to cause serious jams (as they nearly did for us) in the near future. We need flyovers or underpasses at all these junctions.

We also need the BDA to develop alternate high-speed routes to the airport urgently to avoid huge pileups on the sole existing route.



Following is the route from Hebbal flyover onwards up to BIA:

Landmarks en route to BIA



Getting there:

  • Dedicated Airport Shuttle (bus) terminal very close to the airport Terminal. Efficient AC Volvo (Vayu Vajra) and non-AC (Suvarna) bus services from locations throughout the city to the airport, at very reasonable rates. Frequency is about one every half hour per location in the city, and people who have used them say that the timings are maintained. This is clearly the one outstanding achievement of the planning agencies!
  • Taxi services offered by Meru Cabs, Easy Cabs, Mega Cabs, Ola Cabs, etc. which offer a comfortable AC journey in Mahindra-Renault Logan cars, but at slightly expensive fares. Indicative fares are around Rs. 600 to Rs. 1000 from the airport to the city centre and vice-versa. However, taxis are limited and don’t bet on getting one for sure! One could argue as to why other private taxi operators aren’t allowed to tie up with BIA.

Negative points:

  • As per the original agreement, BIAL is to recover its investment costs by levying a rather steep User Development Fee (UDF) of Rs. 675 plus tax on domestic passengers and Rs. 1070 plus tax on international passengers. Although BIAL cannot be blamed for this, passengers will be disappointed as they are already shelling out extra on taxi or bus fares to get to the new airport, not to mention the fact that air fares have surged by over 50% in the recent past due to rising fuel prices. These coupled together make flying out of Bangalore a rather unattractive proposition!
  • A metro rail link from the city centre (BRV Grounds, near MG Road) to BIA was supposed to have been ready by the time BIA opened, but trust our authorities to complete any project on time! It’s anybody’s guess as to when this rail link will be ready, given the way the work on the Bangalore metro is proceeding, not to mention the way Govt. authorities work in Bangalore or indeed India. A functional rail link to the airport could have offset the criticism over the location of the airport, excessive UDF, etc.

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