An online survey recently cast Benazir Bhutto International Airport in a most unflattering light, counting it amongst the worst in the world. And not without reason.
For years Pakistani travellers have acknowledged the airport’s shortcomings and dreamed of a better airport for the federal capital Islamabad. However, efforts to turn this dream into reality have run aground.
Already millions of rupees over budget, the New Benazir Bhutto International Airport (NBBIA) is 70% complete but a cloud of uncertainty looms over its half-baked structure.
According to estimates of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), over three million passengers use the current airport at Islamabad, yearly.
The idea for a new airport in Islamabad was first conceived in the 1980s. The plan was resuscitated in 2006 through a ceremonial gesture and plotted in ink two years later to be built under the planning and supervision of CAA which is responsible for operation of 42 airports across Pakistan.
But the project has been left in the lurch following last month’s dismissal of CAA director general, Air Marshal Khalid Chaudhry. The Supreme Court has now urged completion of the project, urging the FIA to probe into appointments and budget escalations.
“The CAA requires massive restructuring in order to improve its reliability and morale,” commented aviation analyst, Moeed Khan. He explained that government deputations have long-filled top-tier posts within the CAA. “Of the 18 directors general that the agency has had in its three decades, only two have been appointed from within.”
According to Khan, CAA employees have a history of being sidestepped. A volatile political climate and an unfinished project marred with irregularities has given the government an excuse to abandon the under way NBBIA at Fateh Jang for a more lucrative location in Rawat. “It is projected that it will take 8 years to recover the investment made so far,” explained Khan. The project has the blessings of the current government.
The CAA’s alleged incompetence, however, cannot be sidelined either. The NBBIA was initially budgeted at Rs35 billion. Errors such as the building of a parallel runway with less than the recommended length of 1035 metres, delays in awarding contracts and not selecting a location readily equipped with basic infrastructure has exposed the agency’s lack of foresight. The airport was due for completion in 2011. Pressure from the SC and a vested interest on the part of the incumbent government could expedite the stalled project but no sooner than June 2015.
But to every story, there are two sides. Project Director, NBBIAP and engineer, Musharraf Hussain, who has been with the CAA for the last 34 years, holds that much of the public and media’s opinion is based on lack of understanding. “The progress has been exponential since 2012,” he shared, explaining that allegations of ineptitude were merited without full and actual knowledge of the project. According to Hussain, the budget estimate of 2007 was faulty. “The project was easily priced at Rs66 billion even then,” he said, explaining that the project management consultants hired for the job had faltered in identifying the most essential requirements of the project.
A hopeful Hussain is confident that the funds and expertise invested in the NBBIA will ensure that it is completed and functional regardless. Hussain believes that the CAA needs to be recognised for its “in-house expertise” rather than outside appointments.
He added that there was a need to strengthen and empower the authority through delegation of responsibility through internal merit and promotions.
As part of its “New Islamabad” initiative, the PML-N government has started talk of a more lucrative airport in Rawat, which lies some 30 kms away from Islamabad. The scheme is bitterly opposed by a veteran group in the capital city angry at the possibility of building a tunnel cutting through the Margalla Hills for a swifter link to Rawat.
While abandoning the unfinished airport in Fateh Jang is a mere speculation, it has further affected construction efforts of the much-needed new airport and lowered the morale of all involved.
In its final hearing, the SC contended upon the prompt completion of the “faulty project” as a morsel of hope in the face of the histrionic unfolding of an all too familiar episode of good-cop-bad-cop.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 3rd, 2013.
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