Today marked the launch of commercial services to the country’s newest airport – Shirdi International Airport. The airport at temple town of Shirdi saw its first commercial departure being flagged off by President Ramnath Kovind earlier today. The services are being operated by Alliance Air – subsidiary of National carrier Air India, which will operate daily services between Shirdi and state capital Mumbai and also between Hyderabad and Shirdi. Both the flights will be operated by ATR72-600 aircraft.
The temple town of Shirdi is famous as the home of Sai Baba of Shirdi and sees devotees across religions throng the town. Prior to the commissioning of Shirdi airport, the nearest airport was Aurangabad where Hyderabad based carrier Trujet operates daily flights with onward bus connections to Shirdi. It will be interesting to see if Trujet will shift its Aurangabad service to Shirdi.
The town itself has a very small population but estimates suggest that the floating population of devotees ranges from 50,000 to 4,00,000 daily and this large number is what would capture the eye of the airlines to start services.
Shirdi Airport was expected to be operational in 2011 with capacity to handle ATR aircraft. Maharashtra Airport Development Company (MADC) the owner of the airport decided to extend the runway to 8200 feet to accommodate A320/B737 aircraft – which will help launch direct flights from major metro cities in the future. The apron can accommodate two A320/B737 type aircraft or four ATR72-600.
However, this expansion of the runway was funded by cutting down on the expenditure for the terminal. A terminal with basic facilities was given a go-ahead instead of the glass and steel structure envisioned before which is synonymous with many Airport Authority of India’s modernised terminals in recent years. The basic structure of the terminal comprising re-enforced steel panels and pre-fabricated industrial shed material could well become the future of low cost terminals which will come up in smaller towns across the country. The airport becomes operational with a small terminal which will expand to over 3000 sq mtrs in phase II. This next phase will also see availability of night landing facility and is expected to take around a year to complete.
The traffic at Shirdi will be comparable to another temple town – Tirupati which sees services from Air India, Spicejet and Trujet. Both Shirdi and Tirupati could see interest from market leader IndiGo in near future when the airline inducts its ATR72-600 aircraft starting next month.
With the launch of scheduled services to Shirdi, Maharashtra has six airports which see scheduled services. At its peak, Maharashtra had seen operations at Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur, Aurangabad, Nashik, Solapur, Kolhapur, Nanded and Latur. The non-operational ones currently are part of the Regional connectivity scheme (UDAN) of the government and there is likelihood that they would see service resumption in near future making Maharashtra one of the top states in terms of operational airports. The last Greenfield airport in India was Durgapur and it is struggling to attract airlines as well as traffic. I hope the blessings of Sai Baba be with the Shirdi airport and Air India – the first operator at the airport.