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CochinHow is Cochin International Airport faring a decade on from its historic opening? Oliver Clark investigates.

It may be difficult to imagine today, but India’s fourth busiest international gateway, Cochin International Airport, would not have been built if it had not been for people power.

The government of the Indian state of Kerala wanted to build the airport, but lacked the funds to make it happen, and the project appeared to be going nowhere until over 1,000 non-resident Indians (NRI) living in over 30 countries pledged to invest in the gateway.

The NRIs – around one fifth of Kerala’s population works abroad, especially in the Middle East with ‘Gulf Money’ remittances providing an important source of revenue for the state – were soon joined by local banks and development agencies and suddenly financing the project was no longer an issue.

According to present day airport director, Chandrakumaran Nair, NRIs and private investors stumped up all but $6.3 million of the $53 million needed to construct the airport, which opened on May 25, 1999.

“When the central government agency was not able to construct a new airport in Cochin, the government of Kerala framed a public-private partnership under the leadership of the then airport managing director Shri V J Kurien and the response was overwhelming. Today some 15,000 investors from around the globe have a stake in the airport,” explains Nair.

Around 3.7 million (+7%) passed through Cochin International Airport (COK) in 2009 making it India’s seventh largest gateway.

Boasting a modern 100,000sqft domestic and a recently unveiled 478,000sqft international terminal, COK is served by India’s longest runway, allowing the airport to handle the largest commercial aircraft.

Built to traditional Keralite architectural style, the airport’s white washed walls, columns and sloped red tiled roofs are highly distinctive, but behind its exterior, COK has developed a modern facility with a state-of-the-art security and inline baggage system and a departure system recently installed by Glidepath.

“We follow a modular expansion plan and recently inaugurated the new international terminal, we cannot rule out the possibility of a second runway being built in the near future based on demand,” enthuses Nair.

The airport enjoys extensive domestic connections to cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai and international services principally to the Middle East with services delivered by carriers such as Oman Air, Gulf Air, Emirates and Etihad.

Today it is still managed by a public limited company, Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) and, thanks to a board of directors made up of political leaders, industrialists and investors, it retains a high level of business acumen.

For instance, CIAL in partnership with UK-based Alpha has developed the biggest duty free shopping area in India with three shops combining 15,000sqft dotted around the international terminal, selling high street brands including Bacardi Rum, Smirnoff Vodka, Marlboro and Dunhill and provides 33% of total airport revenue.

But perhaps its greatest leap into commercial development are plans to develop 202 hectares of land in a cluster of real estate projects around the airport and in doing so develop one of India’s first fully-fledged airport cities.

The master plan calls for a diverse array of buildings with differing uses, including aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul facility, an aviation academy, budget hotels, 18-hole golf course, convention/exhibition centre and amusement park.

CIAL has floated a fully owned subsidiary, Cochin International Aviation, to develop its airport city vision, and several construction projects are well progressed with the maintenance hangar expected to be completed by the end of 2010.

Other developments are geared towards social activities for both travellers and local residents with the airport planning to build multiplexes, shopping malls, a food court and educational facilities.

An industrial park, encompassing 14 hectares, that will cater to IT, ITES, biotechnology and other knowledge-based industries is planned and will complement Kerala’s already impressive range of software companies.

When deciding how the Cochin airport city would develop, Nair looked to some of the bigger hubs in the region for ideas and has come up with a master plan, which he believes fits the specific needs of the Indian gateway.

“It may not be called inspiration, but we definitely referred to various aerotropolis plans in various destinations like Detroit, Beijing and Changi and I think we came up with a well-balanced idea,” he enthuses.

Cochin has acquired a governmental clearance to introduce a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) around the airport to incentivise companies to relocate their offices there.

The addition of a specialist hospital offering Ayurveda, cardiac care, neurology, orthopaedics and cosmetic dentistry is all part of Nair’s plans to make Cochin a gateway for medical tourists to the state.

With its lush jungle and tropical scenery, the coastal state of Kerala has been dubbed ‘God’s Own Country’ for its natural beauty and religious heritage and this is proving a major draw for tourists.

“We are looking forward to increasing the number of tourists travelling to Cochin from the Middle East by promoting medical tourism for the treatments which Kerala is famous for. Treatment costs are a quarter of the cost compared to Western countries plus they get a vacation in ‘God’s Own Country’ and this is what Cochin International Airport is looking to promote,” he explains.

The Middle East aside, Nair has identified a number of new markets which COK is keen to link up with, including Frankfurt and London in Europe, New York in the USA and the popular African tourist destination Mauritius, allowing tourists from these countries to avoid connecting in Mumbai, Chennai or Trivandrum International Airport.

Meanwhile, a new chapter has opened in Cochin’s cargo operations following the opening of the Center for Perishable Cargo (CPC). With storage capacity of 25,000 tonnes a year, the CPC is the largest such facility in India and will supply food to some 2.5 million expatriate Keralites living in the Middle East, west Asia, Europe and America.

Spread across a 100,000sqft site, half a kilometre to the west of the international terminal, COK’s cargo warehouse already handles some 40,000 tonnes of cargo per year.

Import items include chemicals and electronic/mechanical items, while exports mainly consist of fruits, vegetables, garments, fabrics and spices passing through the airport.

When COK became the first public-private-partnership (PPP) airport to be built in India 11 years ago it also changed the face of the country’s aviation industry.

And to understand the profound impact that it has had on India’s aviation landscape you need look no further than its new neighbour and future competitor – Kannur International Airport.

A new greenfield airport in the north of the Indian state of Kerala, Kannur is being built through a PPP based on the ‘Cochin Airport model,’ according to its director and special officer Shri V Thulasidas, with the state government’s shares capped at 49% and the rest split between public and private investors.

Kannur is just the latest in a string of PPPs and private involvement in Indian airports, including the construction of Bengaluru International Airport and the privatisation of Delhi and Mumbai airports, while the Airports Authority of India’s (AAI) has pledged to seek more private investment to develop India’s airports – this all being testament to the success of Cochin, the country’s first privately operated airport.

“It is true that many of the construction projects now under consideration in Kerala and elsewhere are inspired by Cochin’s model, which in itself is a clear indication of the success story of the airport and the public-private phenomenon,” notes Nair.

So what does Nair believe the future will hold for Cochin Airport? Interestingly, he believes the airport’s mixture of commercial property developments will help transform the airport from a primarily tourist gateway into a mixed and thriving business entity, in line with its origins.

“In the years down the line, we can expect the number of leisure and business traffic will become almost equal. The reason being, the important position gained by Cochin on the commercial front as well as the importance Cochin is going to have on the world tourism map,” says Nair.

Airport World 2010 - Issue 3

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