Mumbai airport. (PTI Photo)
By aviation standards, what happened to a medium-sized business jet on a charter flight while landing in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai may have been a minor incident, though the fuselage broke in two and the aircraft veered off the main runway with inclement weather having posed hazards to what is essentially a light airplane.
While there can only be empathy for the suffering of the passengers who were dealt injuries in the crash landing, some sustaining life-altering ones, what the crash did to flight operations in a major airport, India’s second busiest after New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, was disproportionate to the incident.
For an airport that handles close to 1,000 flights a day, the Mumbai airport functions from one runway — the 3,660-metre Runway 9-27 — and the crash landing led to it being shut down for 90 minutes, blocking landing and takeoff operations and inconveniencing several hundred flights and thousands of air passengers.
The Santa Cruz and Sahar airports may have grown organically from the early days of Indian aviation, with several modifications featured in the constant expansion towards one of the busiest airports of the world. For such an airport to have one operational runway and an intersecting runway 14-32 that is hardly used due to various constraints like the Trombay Hill, hangars, maintenance facilities and even a police station situated near it is not good enough for a metropolis of Mumbai’s size and importance to the Indian economy.
Plans for a parallel runway that can take the Mumbai airport into the future to serve an ever-expanding aviation industry have been there for some time. The problem for Mumbai is the completion of the airport in Navi Mumbai as a multi-modal facility with two runways and an ambitious plan to serve 90 million passengers a year may be some time away even if flight operations begin by mid-2024 as planned.
The constraints of the intersecting runways are such that any small incident can hold up flights in scores and Mumbai airport, that serves around 44 million passengers a year, might be reluctant to put out statistics on punctuality of flight operations. Meanwhile, passengers continue to suffer more from delays at the Mumbai airport than cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad, which planned Greenfield airports years ahead and are even expanding with additional terminals now.