New airport not required
The demand for airport amenities for the next 25 years in the country could be met by upgrading the capacity of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, with one fifth of the Tk 50,000 crore cost projected for the planned airport in Arial Beel, aviation experts said.
They said almost 60 percent capacity of Shahjalal remains still unutilised, and there is not only scope for 100 percent utilisation, but that capacity could also be doubled including construction of another parallel runway.
According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (Caab), Shahjalal having around 2,000 acres of land is currently handling 40 lakh passengers annually while its current capacity is for handling 80 lakh passengers a year.
The experts said in a busy international airport around 60 aircraft can usually takeoff and land per hour, but in Shahjalal only 10 aircraft including those of Bangladesh Air Force land or takeoff per hour. Only 40 percent of its runway capacity is now being utilised.
"Now thirty five to thirty seven percent capacity of Shahjalal is being utilised, after cent percent utilisation the current capacity could even be doubled through proper utilisation of its land. If the government does so, there will be no need to find an alternative at least for the next 25 years," said retired Biman captain Alamgir Sattar who has 24,000 hours of flying experience to different airports across the globe in his 38 years of service.
Two other aviation experts also echoed Sattar, requesting anonymity.
Another aviation expert alleged the project of constructing a new airport has been taken up in the interest of some vested quarters who are not being able to build high-rises on their properties in Dhaka city as those fell within the air funnel (the path for aircraft landing and takeoff).
Another expert however said although Shahjalal is capable of meeting the air traffic demand for the next 10 years, another airport of international standard is needed as a back-up, because if something goes wrong in Shahjalal that will have a huge impact on the city as it is within the city limits.
Officials of the civil aviation and tourism ministry also argued for constructing a new airport, but their reasonings were a little different.
They said the existing infrastructure of airports in Bangladesh is not sufficient to meet the future air traffic demand. Shahjalal is the busiest airport of the country which handles 80 percent of the country's total air traffic.
They also said the airport has a single runway, and its annual passenger handling capacity of 80 lakh is inadequate. The size of its passenger terminal building is too small for implementing the modern five-level security detail, they argued.
Besides, the airport is surrounded by urban residential areas and the cantonment zone which restrict its future expansion possibilities. Shahjalal is also not capable of handling modern jumbo aircraft like Airbus 380, they added.
One Caab official however said, seeking anonymity, that to make Shahjalal capable of handling landing and takeoff of Airbus 380, the existing runway only needs to be slightly altered.
Experts argued that the existing 1,500 feet runway of Shahjalal could be extended by another 1,000 to 1,500 feet allowing aircraft to takeoff and land with full fuel and passenger load. They also said the airport was built keeping a provision for a parallel runway, and it is still possible to build a second runway by relocating some of the surrounding houses through compensating the owners sufficiently.
When reminded that the new airport will have an option for a third runway, they said a third runway is only required to accommodate cross-wind landing, but Bangladesh does not require that as the wind always blows here either from the south or the north.
They said busiest Frankfurt and Heathrow airports each are now handling more than three crore passengers annually with two runways each.
They also suggested proper utilisation of unused land acquired for Shahjalal, shifting of the cargo village to the north, making another terminal building on the south, and proper use of the empty space opposite the Caab office.
The experts said if the existing category-1 Instrument Landing System (ILS) is upgraded to category 2 in Shahjalal, aircraft will be able to land even in deep fog.
Giving an example of how Shahjalal's development was overlooked, a Caab official said an ILS was installed for the runway around three years back, but that could not be made operational yet due to a shortage of fund.
On future expansion of the passenger terminal building to meet future demand, the aviation experts said Shahjalal has sufficient land for that. They questioned if the land was not sufficient, why the government then leased out 130 acres of airport land to a private organisation.
They suggested more use of Chittagong Shah Amanat International Airport as well, which has a capacity of handling 80 lakh passengers, but utilising only 30 percent of that.
About the government's desire to make a regional air traffic hub like Dubai and Singapore out of the new proposed airport, the experts said, Dubai and Singapore became such hubs based on their own airliners' business volume first and foremost.