(Going by International Civil Aviation Standards, the Civil Airport at Srinagar does not, in reality, function as an International Airport)
For a change, let us see how the airport is described in the famous online encyclopedia, Wikepedia. It says, “Sheikh-ul-Alam International Airport (IATA: SXR, ICAO: VISR) also known as Srinagar Airport is an international airport that serves Srinagar, the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India. It is owned by the Indian Air Force, and the Airports Authority of India operates a civil enclave at the airport. Although, designated an international airport in 2005, the Srinagar airport does not receive scheduled international flights as of April 2018, but has seen Hajj flights. It has an integrated terminal and one asphalt runway. The airport has bus and taxi service to the city of Srinagar, which lies 12 kilometres (7.5 mi) to the north”.
So, if one considers all aspects of the Airport, it appears to be an apology to a real International Airport in many respects. The Airport itself with its runway, control tower and other ancillary facilities is the property of the Indian Air Force who maintains it and controls all flying operations. The civilian side has only an enclave, an apron and outside parking area. Again, because of absence of any operations involving international flights, it is a misnomer to call it an international airport. Even the domestic flights are totally dependent upon the Air Traffic Control of the Indian Air Force unlike other civilian airports in the country. In spite of Precision Approach Radar and other sophisticated instrument landing facilities, the civilian flights get cancelled in poor visibility and fog, especially in winter.
One of the most important requirements for any tourist destination to attract high end foreign tourists is easy accessibility. The destination should be accessible to international airlines. As mentioned in Wikipedia, in 2005 Srinagar Airport was up graded and declared to be an “International” Airport. In fact, a Dubai-Srinagar flight was also started. However, the whole exercise turned out to be something in the name only and not with honest and sincere intentions. Firstly, the Airline, Air India Express which operated the flight was an Air India subsidiary meant for the labour class in the Gulf Region. It had all economy configurations with no in-flight facilities. One of the European groups which flew to Srinagar from Dubai in this flight swore never again to fly Air India! Secondly, Pakistan did not allow overflying to aircraft flying in or out of Srinagar which increased the flying time from 3 to 5 hours and made the flight uneconomical. The Pakistani objection could be overruled if the flight had an hour long stopover in Delhi ass flights from Jaipur and Amritsar have. Allegedly, even this namesake international flight was discontinued on the intervention of security agencies. Unfortunately, the “Democratic” India is suffering from a security phobia and every positive thing gets shelved for security reasons. They have the last word!
There is a way out to both maintain the name “International” and allow direct access to high end global tourists both leisure and adventure without any security apprehensions. Let International Charters from various foreign tourism markets be allowed to fly in direct to Srinagar. Pakistanis too will have to co-operate in allowing overflying to these International Charters coming from the west if they have any consideration for the well-being of Kashmiri people. The Charters from the South East Asia can come direct without any hindrance. Also Charters from Central Asia can come directly to Srinagar. Goa has a short season of about five months from November to March. It gets more than a 1000 charters from Russia, Central Asia, Europe and now even from Middle East. It is because of these Charters that the Tourism has received a tremendous boost. Why can’t we have a similar thing in Kashmir?
Well, if Tourism of International standard is to be introduced here with global arrivals, then the Government may have to seriously consider setting up of an independent modern civil airport somewhere else. The valley being totally flat, it should not be difficult to select a proper spot for the purpose. It does not matter if it is little away from the capital Srinagar. One could always construct a fast motorway to reach the airport. Well, that may be a thought for some time in future! In the meantime, one has to make best use of the existing airport with all possible improvements.
The most annoying part of the present system is the most elaborate and frustrating security checks of outgoing passengers. No doubt there have been a number of incidents and Srinagar is because of the volatile situation, a very susceptible airport to incidents of violence, hi-jacking and other incidents. With the most modern body, baggage and even vehicle scanners available these days, it should be possible to reduce the harassment of the passengers. This is more important as the incoming passengers have a smooth entry without any hassles. However, the entire goodwill of the arrival and stay in the valley is lost by the cumbersome and annoying exit. Let us hope. The authorities give due consideration to this aspect also.
Mohammad Ashraf, I.A.S. (Retired), Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir