Fly past   (08 Aug 2008)

New Delhi’s Safdarjung airport is spread over a huge expanse of land and is located right in the centre of the city. Till about two decades ago, private aircrafts used to fly to and from the airport. The home ministry later ordered a shut down of civilian operations at the airport, citing a perceived security threat to the Prime Minister’s residence that is located in close proximity to the airport. Only Air Force helicopters are allowed to fly out of Safdarjung today.

In fact, Safdarjang airport poses as much threat to the Prime Minister’s residence as does Delhi’s main airport at Palam. An aircraft flying from or towards Palam and straying from its flight path will take only six seconds to reach the Prime Minister’s residence. No counter-attack is practically possible within six seconds of a flight straying from its path. Looked this way, there is a constant airborne threat to Prime Minister’s House unless the Palam airport is shifted out of Delhi.

On the other hand, many countries follow better systems to safeguard their prime locations. In the US, civilian aircrafts are not barred to fly near the White House, but the aviation authorities enforce strict regulations over their movement, including fingerprinting and conducting background checks of all pilots before they are allowed to fly to Washington. In London, strict on-ground security enforcement has allowed commercial flights to use the conventional flight path that goes near Buckingham Palace. There is no reason why similar enforcements cannot be mandated at Safdarjung and other sensitive airports in India.

The airport at Safdarjang is Delhi’s oldest and it represents more than our aviation heritage; it is a precious aviation infrastructure that could be utilized at a time when Delhi’s main airport at Palam is reeling under chronic congestions. In my view, the government should rethink its decision and plan to restart civilian operations here soon.

Rajeev Shukla