UMROI, July 20 - The maiden 70-seater IndiGo flight from Kolkata touched down at the Shillong Airport this evening with much fanfare. But the future of the airport itself hangs in balance.
After landing at the airport at about 4.45 pm after a delay of about 45 minutes, the passengers were greeted with Assamese gamosas and Khasi shawls called ryndias.
On board the flight were VIP passengers including Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, his Cabinet colleagues and other MLAs. Sangma was given a customary guard of honour by the State Police at the airport.
Terming the touchdown of the IndiGo flight as a positive development, Sangma said that such connectivity would boost economy and tourism.
However, the low-hanging clouds and the rolling hills surrounding the airport have been a cause of concern and this anxiety found reflection in the Chief Minister’s speech. “We are in talks with the Central Government on a plan B,” Sangma said when asked about the challenges in expanding the airport.
The airport is surrounded by hills and sits on a depression. Unpredictable weather conditions and poor visibility have added to the negative factors.
The runway is 600 metres long and needs to be expanded to at least 800 metres or more for larger aircraft to land.
All this would cost the State exchequer a whopping sum of Rs 8,000 crore. “We do not have that kind of fund, but we want to ensure that this asset is maintained,” the Chief Minister said.
In a way, Sangma gave ample hints that expanding the airport, as has been directed by the Meghalaya High Court, would pose an economic challenge.
“The Court will be informed about this huge investment,” the Chief Minister said.
Apart from the cost in expanding the airport, there are other factors too that discourage huge investment in the expansion project. These include the location, which is in Ri-Bhoi district, which is about an hour’s drive (35 km) from the State capital.
“We charge Rs 2,000 for a booked taxi to Shillong,” a tourist taxi driver here said. The IndiGo flight will be operated under the UDAN scheme of the Centre, with an objective of providing low-cost air connectivity at inaccessible places.
Meanwhile, the Chief Minister said the IndiGo flight would operate on a daily basis from Kolkata and efforts would be taken to have smaller aircraft flying in from other metros of the country.