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Tuesday November 30, 2021

Lahore’s Walton airport to be relocated

December 06, 2020

ISLAMABAD: A high-powered committee of the Punjab government, chaired by the finance minister, has recommended the relocation of the Walton airport in Lahore to a suitable site due to potential safety issues following the planned establishment of a business hub at the site.

It also decided that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will revoke the previously cancelled no-objection certificate (NOC) that had proposed a 500 ft height limit for proposed buildings to be constructed by the Abu Dhabi Group (Taavun Private Limited) so that their business hub project could be revived on a fast track basis, official documents available with The News reveal.

The chief secretary mentioned a recent meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan in which the issue of the cancellation of NOCs for 500ft height buildings provided to Taavun by the CAA and the possibility of relocating Walton airport was discussed. He also said that an update in this respect will be submitted to the prime minister within a week’s time.

The meeting also decided that the senior member, Board of Revenue, Punjab (SMBR), member, Colonies and the Lahore commissioner will determine the existing ownership of the airport land along with details of any ongoing litigation over the land.

The Lahore Development Authority (LDA) would take the leading role in coordinating with different stakeholders to thrash out various options for the establishment of an environment-friendly economic hub at the Walton airport site. A committee comprising representatives from the Urban Unit, Infrastructure Development Authority Punjab (IDAP), Board of Revenue (BOR), Bank of Punjab (BOP) CAA, member Colonies and the Lahore commissioner will be formed to submit proposals on the relocation plan. The committee will also identify alternate land, look at the financial implications of relocation, discuss timelines with land swap options, and look at the required infrastructure, access road, air strip, hangar, radar etc.

The minutes of the document state that the Punjab government will convey its full support for the revival of the project to the Taavun management on receipt of conditional approval from the CAA. A board of directors (BoD) meeting may also be scheduled to finalize the future roadmap of the project.

The Taavun Private Limited is a joint venture of the Dhabi Group and Punjab government incorporated on Feb 12, 2006.

The LDA vice chairman told the meeting that the current location of Walton airport poses a serious safety risk due to the densely populated residential and commercial areas surrounding it. He said that the Taavun project, with its proposed height limit of 500 ft, falls within the funnel area of the Walton airport due to which the CAA cancelled the earlier NOC issued to the company. He said presently the Walton airport is being primarily utilized by some flying clubs and offer hobby flying services to enthusiasts. In addition, there were a few aircraft incidents near Walton airport in the past.

The LDA official proposed the relocation of the airport to an alternate location and conversion of the existing airport into an economic/business hub. He elaborated that an increasing business appetite is being witnessed with respect to high-rise buildings in Lahore and current LDA policies promote the development of high-rise buildings. However, Walton airport continues to be a stumbling block in the development of high-rise buildings in the prime location of Lahore.

The CAA representatives endorsed the relocation proposal in view of the current safety risks. He said that in the present scenario, approval for 150ft height is permissible. However, if the airport is relocated by offering alternate land for the airport, a maximum height of 700ft will be allowed in the vicinity of Lahore. He proposed that additional activities like para-jumping can be pursued at the new location given a safer environment. The Planning and Development (P&D) board chairman endorsed this perspective and said that the safety of the population should be given top consideration.

The minutes said the BOR official provided the details of the current possession of the airport land by the CAA, Pakistan Air Force, Pakistan Army and Army Housing Directorate.

The CAA representative referred to the recent initiative of the federal government with respect to tourism promotion and regional integration licences (TPRI) which could be an opportunity for tourism promotion and revenue generation in Punjab in case the Walton airport is relocated.

The P&D board chairman said that the Taavun project has been at a standstill due to various issues for more than 14 years and the matter must be addressed as soon as possible due to site safety issues. Another official said that the Punjab government’s stance with respect to the relocation of Walton airport should be communicated to Taavun so that the updating of the feasibility study could be initiated by the company. He said that the CAA should at least issue a provisional/conditional NOC for 500ft height so that the discussion with the Abu Dhabi Group could be reinitiated. The CAA official said that he will immediately take up the matter of conditional approval of the NOC with his superiors.

With respect to the feasibility study of the project, the BOP representative stated that it is based on aggressive assumptions, for example a 20% sale premium and 100% occupancy rates, which needs to be updated.

The IDAP official endorsed BOP’s viewpoint and stated that as per the IDAP’s calculations, the project cost would be around Rs53bn as against Rs40.9bn, based on feasibility report of a leading accountancy firm dated November 6, 2018, requiring an additional equity injection by the sponsors.

Another official said that as per the JV agreement, any of the JV partners can exit under various conditions including a material breach of the contract by any party, through negotiations, sale of shareholding to a third party or the liquidation of the company. He added that the company has extended a substantial amount as a loan to its sister concern in the past, which is still outstanding.

The finance minister asked the chief secretary to form a committee to review the feasibility of the Taavun project in terms of estimated cost and additional equity requirements considering the fact that the value of land contributed by the Punjab government has increased manifold. He also directed to propose contingency options if the Abu Dhabi Group opts for an exit. It was discussed that a BoD meeting could also be held to ascertain Abu Dhabi Group’s future plan with respect to its investment in Taavun.

The Walton airport has a long and illustrious history. A group of philanthropist aviators founded the Punjab Flying Club in 1930, and later in 1932, named it the Northern Indian Flying Club. It had taken 157.87 acres of land initially from the forest department in Village Rakh Kot Lakhpat and village Bhabara. Subsequently, the green airfield was converted into a concrete runway. The aerodrome was used in the Second World War by the army and for civilian aircraft as well.

The Punjab government transferred an area of 259.53 acres of state land to the aviation department of the then Indian government for a period of 50 years for the civil aerodrome (known as Walton Aerodrome).

At the time of Partition, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah landed for first time in the new state of Pakistan at this aerodrome in 1947. It remained under operation as a passenger airport until the early 1960s.