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Coming soon: Low-cost Kerala Airways
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June 02, 2005

Cochin International Airport Limited, India's first aviation venture owned by the government of Kerala and nearly 10,000 Non-Resident Indian shareholders from about 30 countries, is on the wings of fast growth.

Six years after the country's first green field airport in the private sector began operations, CIAL has some more grandiose plans up its sleeve:

"We are growing rapidly. Our dream project is paying rich dividends," V J Kurien, managing director, CIAL says as he outlines the future expansion plans of the country's first model airport.

The Cochin airport has many firsts to its credit. It is India's first aviation venture owned by the public. All the other airports and other infrastructural facilities are owned, managed and operated by the government (read civil aviation ministry, the Airports Authority of India and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation).

Kurien, a senior IAS officer, has been the moving force behind CIAL ever since its inception. He was the district collector of Ernakulam in 1982, when the demand for a new airport was made. Wasting no time, Kurien got into the act and met the then Kerala chief minister K Karunakaran with a project report.

The Karunakaran government acted fast by acquiring a 1,300-acre plot at Nedumbassery, about 27 km from Cochin. Soon Kurien was divested of the collector's post and made the managing director of CIAL. The Rs 230 crore (Rs 2.30 billion) project became functional in a record time of six years.

The airport is owned by Cochin International Airport Limited, a public limited company in which the Kerala government has the single largest stake. CIAL is managed by a board of directors comprising political leaders, industrialists, NRIs and representatives of financial institutions.

Besides the Kerala government, CIAL's shareholders include the Federal Bank [Get Quote], State Bank of Travancore [Get Quote], Bharat Petroleum, Air-India, Housing and Urban Development Corporation and nearly 10,000 non resident Indians from 30 countries.

Although the airport was launched with borrowed money, CIAL has seen its operational revenue increase from Rs 56.8 crore (Rs 568 million) in 2002-03 to Rs 79.3 crore (Rs 793 million) for the year 2003-04.The airport earned a net profit after tax of Rs 21.1 crore (Rs 211 million) during the year 2003-04, up from Rs 12.5 crore (Rs 125 million) in 2002-03.

Leading foreign airlines, especially to the Gulf region, take off from the Cochin airport. In 2004-05, CIAL crossed the one million mark in international passengers and nearly 6 lakh (600,000) domestic travellers.

Kurien, who has remained the managing director of the airport all these years except for a two-year break, says that CIAL would emerge as India's key airports in the country in few years.

"We have come a long way. It is an ideal time for more developments . So we are mulling several initiatives to achieve new heights," Kurien points out.

High on his agenda is setting up a low-cost airline. Ever since the domestic carrier Air Deccan kicked off the budget airline concept in India two years ago, several corporates have either launched or are planning to kick-start new low-cost airlines in the country. Some of them include Kingfisher Airlines, Magic Air, Go Air and Royal Airways.

The Cochin airport too is on the bandwagon of a budget airline. A consultancy agency IF&FS has already conduced a feasibility study for the project, which has suggested that a budget airline flying to national and international destinations from CIAL has immense scope.

"We are in the initial planning stage. We do hope the budget airline has huge potential especially from here because a large number of Keralites are working in the Gulf countries and other parts of the world," Kurien says.

Interestingly, this may be the first time that an airport company is planning to foray into the airline business.

But Kurien has no plans to stop with the launch of an airline.

The airline launch will be followed by the setting up of India's largest aircraft maintenance company. The nitty-gritty of how to make the Cochin the hub of aircraft maintenance is being worked out.

The plan, CIAL officials disclosed, is to form an entirely different company to create a large aircraft maintenance hub at the airport. The company may be formed on the similar lines that CIAL was formed.

"We may ask NRI engineers to be part of the new venture. There is a possibility that the aircraft maintenance hub can become one of the largest in Asia," an official pointed out.

Also on the anvil are launch of a few five-star hotels, a shopping mall, a golf course and an airport township around the airport, the land for which is already under CIAL possession.

Built on a 1,300-acre plot surrounded by a lush green landscape, the Cochin airport boasts of India's second longest runway. Work for a new runway will also start soon.

NRI shareholders who have invested in CIAL are excited at the prospect of a new airline from the company. "It is a wonderful thing. The Cochin airport has now a model airport venture in the history of aviation in India. With the launch of an airline of its own, it would make the airport a unique venture in the world," says N V George, a director at CIAL.

George, who owns the Sharjah-based Geo Electricals Trading & Contracting Company, was one of the NRIs who came forward to invest a large amount of money into the airport project when it was launched.

"This airport is proof of our bonding with India. It has proved that if NRIs are united, they can do wonders in India," George points out.

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