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Mumbai airport: What will it be like

January 03, 2008 12:29 IST

G V Sanjay Reddy, 45, wears many hats. He is the vice hairman of GVK, one of India's largest infrastructure developers; MD of the Mumbai International Airport Pvt Ltd, which operates India's busiest airport; MD of GVK Jaipur Expressway, which operates the six-lane toll road project on the Golden Quadrilateral; and CEO of GVK Biosciences.

He is also on the board of the Hyderabad-based TajGVK. It's obviously helped that he is the only son of Group Chairman G V Krishna Reddy.

The GVK Group is working at a breathtaking space. It is constructing power plants and special economic zones, will build a port in Dahej, is bidding for the Ganga Expressway project in Uttar Pradesh, the Navi Mumbai airport and the Metro Rail Phase II.

These days, however, Reddy is mostly wearing the MIAL MD's hat, as the upgradation of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai is one of the most challenging tasks any CEO can ever dream of, Reddy says. The job also involves taking decisions on hundreds of acres of land around the airport which is located in the prime area of Santacruz -- a reason why he has now got 24-hour security (a plain clothed guard is his constant companion).

He also doesn't take any call on his Blackberry if he can't recognise the number. "It's just a professional hazard," Reddy says, trying hard to be nonchalant about these "small" changes in his life.

We are at Masala Bay on the first floor of Taj Lands End in Bandra. The steward ushers us to an exclusive corner, which gives the ambience of a private dining hall. And the reason is quite obvious: the Reddy family is the owner of TajGVK, which runs the Taj hotel properties in Hyderabad. Reddy leaves the choice of food to the steward ("it's better to leave the job to experts," he says) and opts for buttermilk to start with. The steward looks mighty pleased.

The Mumbai airport project, which MIAL bagged in February 2006 in the face of stiff competition, has already completed its first phase of work. And the impact is visible. Take Terminal 1B, which now has gleaming granite, newly-planted waving palms, kalzip roofing (a rainscreen system) and substantially more personnel and counters. The airport now also has a rapid exit taxiway called India, which is saving around two minutes per aircraft movement.

GVK has also managed kerbside improvements, demolished over 600 toilets in the area to upgrade them and even imported furniture from Spain to improve the look and feel of the airport.

Surely, that must be the easier part of the whole airport modernisation plan? Reddy disagrees vehemently and says that it has been, in fact, one of the most difficult part of the job. "If we have managed to do this within the targetted deadline, the rest of it should be easy," he says.

Reason: GVK found that the Airports Authority of India didn't have ownership rights on over 45 per cent of the area within the airport premises. That involves over 400 litigation issues which kept his formidable team of lawyers busy throughout last year.

But they did a damn good job, Reddy says, as the starters arrive. The steward has been most generous indeed as the plate contains grilled chicken, lamb chops and chicken kebabs. For a moment, I mistake it for the main course.

Reddy looks pleased and proceeds to give a fascinating account of how the GVK Group met the formidable challenges that came its way. For example, the airport had given out 35,000 entry passes to all kinds of people who had very little to do with the core function: to make the airport work.

That posed a huge risk to security apart and streamlining these things take a lot of patience and hard work. "We run the risk of treading on too many toes," he says.

Besides, the country's busiest airport is spread over a mere 1,850 acres (the operational area in fact is just 1,450 acres), which is "peanuts" compared to Delhi's 5,000 acres. And apparently, the airport was violating 76 of the 77 universally recognised standards for international airports in the areas of runway rules and security distances to be maintained for smooth flights.

"In no part of the world would you be allowed to function with such non-compliance."

Quickly realising that this should not upset the powers-that-be, Reddy says the state government and the AAI have been most constructive in their suggestions and extending all help.

Another problem was that encroachments were far higher than what was initially indicated. Surveys conducted by MIAL found that the actual encroachments were in excess of 262 acres. But one of Reddy's crowning glories has been in managing slum rehabilitation. Hindustan Development Infrastructure Ltd, which is overseeing this aspect, has already identified 100 acres of land within three kilometres of the airport site.

The immigration system at the arrival area of the international terminal has been overhauled with additional counters making it amongst the fastest in the world. With additional check-in counters at Terminal 1B (80 in all, which is more than double of the earlier capacity) the entire area has been decongested.

The Mumbai airport also became the first airport in India to launch free Wi-Fi internet service throughout the domestic and international terminals. Free internet kiosks will also be set up in all terminals, with each terminal having at least one kiosk with four computers.

The main course -- rotis, chicken curry and baked fish -- looks appetising, but Reddy talks non-stop and eats little. The Mumbai airport makeover is clearly a passion for him -- something which has forced him to stay alone in Mumbai (he visits his wife and two children in Hyderabad only on Sundays) and skip scuba diving and trekking, reasons for his slender frame, for almost two years now.

Reddy's plan is to expand and upgrade the Mumbai airport infrastructure to cater to 40 million passengers per year in two years (against 17 million now) and double cargo movement to one million tonnes per year. In the second and third phases, the international and domestic terminals will be merged and the current domestic terminal will be converted to a dedicated cargo terminal.

With the parallel runway that is being planned, the airport will be able to handle about 60 flights per hour, compared to the current 500 flights per day.

The company is also looking at developing an elevated expressway that directly connects the Western Express Highway to the airport. A monorail system to facilitate passenger movement internally is also on the cards. Besides, talks are on to link the Mumbai airport to the Mumbai Metro.

The project cost till 2010 is Rs 5,200 crore (Rs 52 billion) inanced through a debt-equity mix of 80:20. The debt has already been tied up with Indian institutions led by UTI Bank and IDBI Bank.

The company has also submitted plans to the state government for extensive city-side redevelopment which will include the commercial development of hotels, convention centres and a recreational area in the proximity of the airport.

The main course is over fast -- a consequence perhaps of the rather heavy starters -- and Reddy is clearly in a hurry to leave. As his black Mercedes rolls in to take him to his office at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport, he says his group is also planning to bid for airports in other parts of the world. "If we can succeed in Mumbai, other parts of the world will hopefully be a cakewalk," he says.

Shyamal Majumdar
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