Dubai Dreams Gone Sour

Flight to Dubai may have been a long cherished dream; the excitement in trader community is about attracting high end tourists. Can the Indian airlines fulfil the dream, R S Gull reports

DUBI FLIGHT2Behind the excitement of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and Captain Hasan Magrey over the maiden touchdown of the Dubai flight at the Rs 130 crores Srinagar International Airport was a dream. Omar wanted his grandfather’s dream – an international airport in Srinagar that he wanted to develop in early 1980s – to materialise. As a commercial pilot, Magrey was keen to fly the plane to Dubai in eighties. But the plan was shelved. Now settled in Dubai, the pilot-turned-trader finally made it as a passenger on the first flight that was flown by Kapil Raina, another Kashmiri.

For around 650 Kashmiri families with Dubai as their second home, Magrey said the flight is a relief. “Against an average of 24 hours that usually would take flying home, it is barely four hours now”, Magrey said.

Even before its up-gradation, Srinagar airport had most of the facilities required for receiving international flights. Makkah pilgrims have been flying directly from Srinagar for many years. Even during mid-eighties, Air India would fly a Boeing-707 three times a week from Singapore to Srinagar. But turmoil in Kashmir had pulled curtains on it.

However, the excitement is about replacing the backpackers by high-spending visitors and helping trade to get another axis – the earlier one being trans-LoC travel. But a weekly flight at a subsidized return ticket of Rs 14,078 is unlikely to trigger a change, say the traders, though they welcome the development.

Procedural wrangles top their minds. Tickets are available at Dalgate but flying to Dubai requires a visa that UAE embassy issues from Delhi. Going to Delhi for visa and flying back home for a cheap ride to Dubai would be penny wise pound foolish.  However, the trend of outsourcing visa issuance is a new fad in Western foreign offices. Tata Consultancy Service (TCS) manages visas for USA in India. Omar’s government can seek TCS services for some help if they have a tie-up with the Dubai consulate. “But the issue remains”, says Irfan, a top executive of an automobile concern. “Americans trusting TCS for issuing visa is OK. Can Government of India trust TCS for operating in Kashmir?”

The issue reached the chief minister’s office. Omar promptly sent a communication to UAE’s Delhi based ambassador, Mohammad Sultan Al-Owais, asking him to open a visa facility in Srinagar. “It would be appreciated if arrangements are made in Srinagar city to process the visa applications for the people of J&K State who intend to fly to Dubai from J&K,” Omar wrote on February 19.

Though the facility is still a far cry, post ecstasy, the trade is tense. “It is a good beginning,” says Nazir A Bakhshi of Shiraz Travels. “But hoping that it would trigger turnaround in high-end arrivals is remote.” In the first flight 17 passengers came to Srinagar and 28 went to Dubai. A week later, the second flight brought 26 passengers and only eight boarded the flight to Dubai from Srinagar. The incoming outgoing passenger ratio was no different in the third flight that flew a week later – 55 came from Dubai and 17 flew from Srinagar.
Instead of flying symbolic weekly flights to Dubia, Bakhshi said, the trade had suggested routing Srinagar flights to other countries through Delhi. “And then Srinagar airport is not authorized to host international charters as is the case in Goa”.

Srinagar airport is a Defence (read IAF) property where civil enclave was established in 1979. Though it gradually evolved inch by inch, the beginning of the turmoil hit its growth. “Earlier the planes would remain taxied overnight here and pilots and hostesses would fly us out next morning”, remembers Irfan. “Now flights take off between 11 am and after 3 pm only even though it is one of the crowded airports with over 18 flights a day during summers.”

Apart from technology deficit, there are restrictions dictated by “perceived” security threats. For all border airports, there are restrictions for civilian aircrafts between sunset and sunrise and the IAF-run Air Traffic Control enforces the restriction in letter and spirit in Leh, Jammu and Srinagar. The same rule, however, does not apply for Amritsar, confided a senior IA official. “If this system is withdrawn and the airports get the night landing facilities, the chances of flights getting cancelled or passengers driving home after getting boarding cards will become a rare instance,” he said.

Instrumental Landing Systems (ILS) is a major issue, which union minister Prof Saif ud Din Soz says he is fighting for. A ground-based instrument approach system comprising radio signals and high-intensity lighting arrays provides precision guidance to pilots to enable safe landing during reduced visibility due to fog, rain or snow. While the facility exists in almost all Indian airports, it is yet to be introduced here which is a major factor for the problems that passengers face during winters when a choked (Jammu-Srinagar) highway sends them rushing to the airport.

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