Amritsar’s Rajasansi Airport is one of the earliest air stations built during the days of the British Raj. It was basically an air force station, but VIP planes on visits to Lahore and Amritsar have been landing at this air station prior to 1947 also.
After independence, this station was extensively used during the 1947- 48 Kashmir War with Pakistan as a supply station for the troops air lifted to Kashmir. After the end of that war also regular daily supplies, including blankets and food, to snow bound Valley of Kashmir were air lifted from this airport.
During the nineteen fifties New Delhi – Srinagar flights were routed via Amritsar Airport. Amritsar was also serving as the intermediate transit point for Afghan and Indian Airlines flights shuttling between New Delhi and Kabul. Three hundred thousand Sikhs and Hindus living in different areas of Afghanistan used to hop to this airport during the sixties and seventies.
When Janata Party Government (1977 – 79) ruled India, it was decided to accord international airport status to this airport. Flights were started between New Delhi Amritsar and Kabul during the seventies. During the eighties Amritsar Kabul Bermingham flights were started by Air India, which were very successful but were discontinued after the start of insurgency in Punjab (1983 – 1995).
During the tenure of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998 – 2004) two small airlines of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, formed out of the break up of Soviet Union, applied for rights to fly to Amritsar Airport. Administrative permission for daily flights was granted. But initially both airlines started flying twice weekly each out of Amritsar Airport. Since there was not much traffic between Amritsar and the capitals (Tashkent and Dushanbe) of these countries, they started serving as a transit facility for London bound Punjabi and Himachali passengers. These flights became very successful. Both airlines started gradually increasing their flights. In the meanwhile, this airport was officially designated as an international airport. By early 2004, this airport was handling about 20 flights a week.
During the tenure of Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh (2004 onwards) in 2005, a popular New Delhi – Amritsar – Bermingham – Toronto flight of Air India was started. Initially only one plane was used, which completed one way journey in 20 hours. This thrice weekly flight became very profitable and in 2006, the frequency was increased to six flights a week. Its economy class is still running full and there is a waiting list, which extends to several days. In November 2008, Air India suddenly discontinued its flights to Toronto via Bermingham. The reason was that Air India was on the brink of losing its important landing and takeoff slots at the World famous Heathrow Airport in London. In order to maintain its quota of flights to London, Air India changed the route of its Amritsar Toronto flights from Bermingham to London. But a local airline from Bermingham called Bilga Air (or Air Bilga) stepped in to start Bermingham Amritsar flights. But, in spite of the change in route, the daily traffic from Amritsar to Toronto has remained unaffected. This route is the most lucrative route of Air India.
Singapore Airlines is a very innovative company. It runs among others Singapore Vancouver, Singapore San Francisco, Singapore Los Angeles and Singapore Sydney flights. By starting new flights to Amritsar International Airport, it established a new indirect link between Los Angeles Amritsar, San Francisco Amritsar and Vancouver Amritsar. But due to World-wide recession, it is also forced to cut down its operations. Singapore Airlines used to fly to several destinations in India including Amritsar. It now wants to consolidate its operations only from the metro airports of India. That is why it is making Amritsar Airport a scapegoat. The fact remains that even on February 1, its incoming flight carried three hundred passengers and its out-going flight from Amritsar carried 255 passengers, which are profitable numbers. There is a suspicion that Singapore Airlines does not lose money on its Punjab operation, it might therefore restart its Punjab operations not immediately but when the Chandigarh International Airport becomes operational. Some times commercial companies keep their cards too close to their chest. The stoppage of Singapore Airlines operations from Amritsar has hit the passengers of Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sydney very hard. They will now be forced to fly to New Delhi via London, Amsterdam, Paris, Moscow, Rome or Frankfurt. Similarly the Sydney and Auckland bound passengers will also be forced to fly to New Delhi instead of Amritsar
Singapore Airlines thrice weekly flights to Amritsar factually were very successful. These flights not only connected Amritsar with the West Coast of North America, they connected Amritsar to Sydney, Auckland, Jakarta, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. These indirect flights were minting money. The excuse for canceling these flights due to exhorbitantly high landing charges at Amritsar International Airport, which are more than double compared to the landing charges at New Delhi and Mumbai International Airports, was more or less a lame excuse.
Before this Air India discontinued its New Delhi – Amritsar – London – New York flight, which was started with a lot of fanfare in the early part of 2008. Now the Air India’s Amritsar New York flight runs only during the peak season. Siting lack of luxury class passengers and much higher landing charges, even Jet Airways discontinued its Amritsar London flights with effect from November 1, 2008. Only in early part of 2008 Jet Airways had increased the frequency of its Amritsar – London flights to six a week from the initial twice weekly flight schedule. Of course Air India’s switch over of Amritsar – Toronto flights from via Bermingham to via London did hurt Jet Airways business on this route. But the way traffic is increasing on this segment, Jet Airways would have easily made up its losses over a period of a few months only. But our five star airlines have become very proud and conceited. Sooner or later Jet Airways will have to repent for this act.
Marginal curtailment of Amritsar flights by Air India and withdrawl of flights by Jet Airways and Singapore Airlines have started ringing of alarm bells throughout Punjab. Amritsar International Airport has lately become the airport of choice for most expatriate Punjabis. Between 2004 and early part of 2008, the number of weekly flights from Amritsar International Airport had increased from 20 to 89. By now this number has dropped to 61. This airport has so far been growing at a rate of 35 to 40% a year. Even in all of 2008, this airport has registered a 9% increase in traffic over the previous year. In spite of a steady increase in volume of passengers, some airlines have pulled out of this airport. This is a perplexing paradox. Some people have started suspecting that in view of the construction of another international airport in Chandigarh – Mohali area within Punjab, there is a deliberate attempt on the part of some vested interests to sabotage the growth of Amritsar International Airport.
The NRI Punjabis scattered all over Europe, North America and Australia are worried that collapse of their favourite Amritsar International Airport will make traveling to India very difficult and uncomfortable for them. They love their Golden Temple and denial of landing facilities in the city of the Golden Temple will cause a spiritual and psychological shock to them. Some remedial action is needed without further loss of time. The landing charges at this airport must come down drastically. Logically the landing charges should be the highest at the two largest airports in New Delhi and Mumbai and should be much lower at the smaller non-metro airports. In America the bigger airports are more expensive compared to their smaller counterparts.
I was in Southern California (Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties) in the middle of January 2009, every Punjabi over there was worried about the fate of Amritsar International Airport. Some were even thinking that some wealthy Sikhs should pool their resources to start an airline for flying to Amritsar International Airport. Some were surprised at non-starting of Vancouver Amritsar flights. They are feeling that the number of Sikhs and Punjabis living in and around Vancouver and Toronto is the same. If the flights from Amritsar to Toronto can be a success, why can’t the flights to Vancouver be successful. More over both Calgary and Edmonton are less than seven hundred miles from Vancouver. Both these cities can be served by Vancouver Amritsar flights.
One problem is that via London or other cities of Europe, the flight from Amritsar to Vancouver takes twenty two hours. That leaves very little time for clean-up and return journey. Jet Airways has a solution for this. They have recently acquired hub facility rights at Shanghai International Airport in China. Shanghai is only six hours away from Amritsar and the time taken from Shanghai to Vancouver is eleven hours. With a stopover of two hours in Shanghai the plane from Amritsar can land in Vancouver within nineteen hours. This is ideal for return journey. For Sydney (Australia) we can have Amritsar Chennai and Chennai Sydney flights.
By: Harjap Singh Aujla
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