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BW Businessworld

Not Just An Airport

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In this time of gloom and doom, here is one bright spark in the aviation industry in India. In Navi Mumbai, where the proposed new airport is eventually supposed to come up (when is anybody's guess), the Sydney-headquartered Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (Capa) is setting up a massive 35-acre "aeropark".

If the aeropark takes off as envisaged, it will be a landmark in the history of India's aviation industry after Air India. The facility will be one of the most ambitious aviation training grounds in the three big aviation growth centres — China, the Indian subcontinent and the Middle-East — and will be designed to service the entire spectrum of operational and educational training requirements for airlines, airports, service providers, government and suppliers. There will be an aviation IT school, a general aviation school, an air safety school, airline school, airport school, MRO school, pilot training school (simulator related), cabin crew and ground school, management school and aviation environment research centre.

According to Capa's India CEO Kapil Kaul, the best in the business will provide training to aviation personnel across categories in the park. So, for instance, if it is air safety, New Zealand Airways, which is known for its safety training and standards, will be roped in to set up the school here.

The schools would then provide personnel to aviation majors in the region.

The park — whose location is also linked to the airport's final approval — is expected to break ground by the third quarter of the coming financial year and may be operational from the third quarter of 2010-11. Around 6,500 persons will receive training every year here. The categories for training will encompass an entire range of aviation-related services and activities. There will be courses in air traffic management, pilot type rating/simulator checks, airline and airport courses, aircraft management, MRO training, cabin crew and customer service, aviation law, FBO management, airport retail, aviation security, aviation and environment and aviation safety.

Capa — which has so far played the role of a consultancy to companies interested in entering the aviation sector while building a comprehensive industry data-base in India — is for the first time investing into a project in India and taking on a new role. A Sydney-based 10-member team headed by Steve Mann, former chief strategy officer of Qantas, is working on the project's first phase, which is expected to cost around $100 million (the masterplan alone costs $4-5 million). Private equity investors have already been roped in, despite the straitened times.

Eventually, there are plans to set up an MBA school within the premises so that specialised managers for the industry can be churned out from here. Many airline and airport promoters in India complain that "managerial depth" and "hands-on experience" has been a huge problem for them, especially in the start-up phase (which explains the large influx of expat CEOs for virtually every start-up in the country). In fact, the park itself will be run by a management company, which has five top international names from the industry on its board.

The birth of the aeropark idea stems from the fact that while aviation in the region has been hugely liberalised in recent times, the human resource element has been virtually forgotten. As a result, there has been a huge shortage of quality personnel for the sector — be it in crew, staff for airlines and airports, MRO engineers or air traffic controllers. "The park will provide the workforce for the aviation industry for tomorrow. But it will in the process also train today's workforce," says Kaul. Capa and its team remain undeterred by the current downturn choosing to dismiss it as a temporary blip and arguing that "fundamentally nothing has changed".

If it takes off — and the sceptic in me believes that could be a big "if" — the school could help complete the liberalisation and reform of aviation in India, which has so far been restricted only to the airlines and airport sector. General aviation and other ancillary industries have not developed in the country and without that the actual benefits of the reform have not been fully felt.

Either way, the aeropark is the first bit of good news for a sector that has been plagued with nothing but bad news since early 2007. And if it takes off as planned by the promoters, it could well be something to watch out for in the future.

anjulibhargava at gmail dot com

(Businessworld Issue Dated 2-8 June 2009)