The announcement of international flights operating from Imphal is a bit of news that leaves one ambivalent. The present condition of the airport is nothing to write home about as evident from the limited number of rest rooms that are hardly cleaned up and left to stink. The lack of enough leg-room and lounge area in the present domestic airport with only two beverage counters in the area before the security checking area does nothing to instill confidence in the said ‘International airport’ status. Right now, there are no snacks counters in the waiting area once passengers get through the security check. Rather, the earlier area, which by no stretch of imagination can be called spacious has now been demarcated to create a new boarding gate where an open drain just outside the said gate smells so bad that the weak hearted may think twice of going through the gate. For many visitors to the state who come in to the state by flight, the airport is the first place of contact and surely, there is nothing worth about Imphal airport to impress visitors. Before an ambitious reach for an international standard, it would help to first give an uplift to the present status by putting in drinking water outlets, more leg room which can be done by adding room extensions instead of demarcating the already cramped space, adding more restrooms and maintaining them well.
The Gopinath Bordoloi airport at Guwahati earlier operated as an ‘International airport’ of sorts when Air India flights to Bangkok in Thailand were in operation twice a week. When the operation of the ‘international airport’ started in April 2002, there was only the Guwahati-Bangkok sector. No other airlines were in operation other than Air India and there were no other foreign destinations apart from Bangkok. The Air India Guwahati-Bangkok flights stopped in August of the same year due to lack of commercial viability after a major loss of nearly Rs. 6 crores. During the brief months that the Guwahati-Bangkok flights were in operation, there was no more than 40 per cent seat occupancy leaving Air India with the losses. As of now, Druk Air, the Royal Bhutan Airlines is now operating only two flights every week from Guwahati to Paro in Butan and Bangkok. Interestingly enough, the Governor of Meghalaya Ranjit Shekhar Mooshahary has mooted for better road connectivity of the north-eastern region as the first priority and called for air connectivity linking Guwahati – Shillong to Dhaka on to Yangon and Thailand to boost more flight consumers and trade and other relations in the said regions. Another flight sector that has been mooted with an eye on increasing flight seats is the Guwahati to Dhaka and then on to Bangkok loop.
Zeroeing on the right flight sector and route will be integral for the success of the international flight sector in Manipur. The irony is that right now, the Imphal airport does not have the capacity or the infrastructure to operate more than 10 flights daily. Also, domestic connectivity is limited to Delhi, Kolkatta, Guwahati daily and through connecting flights to other destinations. Even the neighboring state of Aizawl does not have daily connectivity, given the low numbers of flight passengers on the sector. The plans to make Imphal airport an International airport is going to be an important and integral part of the Look East Policy, which encompasses the region as an entry point to the South East Asian region. And that is precisely why there should be no hasty dash to bring in the ‘International airport’ tag within the set three months time. First impressions are critical for they do shape the nature of later interactions and forging relationships. This becomes more relevant in business dealings. If the opening of the flight sector is to bring in trade interest or boost tourism in the state, it should be borne in mind that those who will be heading to Manipur will come from a background of cleanliness, sanitation, good roads, warm hospitality, choice of the best hotels at the best rates and high class hospitality service. There is no doubt that the people of Manipur will be able to save money when they head to International destinations and specially in the South Asian region once the Imphal airport gets linked to the international flight sector. The critical question is, would there be enough volume of air traffic from Manipur to foreign destinations but more important, will there be enough interest for foreign travelers to head to the state?