Kochi airport, one of the busiest airports in India according to Airport Authority of India (AAI), was caught off guard when the dams in Kerala were opened following heavy rains in the state. From the runway and taxi bay to the terminals and conveyor belts, many of its assets were under water and destroyed subsequently, forcing the authorities to shut down the airport on August 15 for 14 days. Considering the damage that is estimated at Rs 300 crore, many thought it will take about a month until operations were restored. The Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL), however, was back on its feet in 14 days.
When CIAL was shut
Kochi airport authorities were hard pressed into service since August 9 when flight services were suspended for nearly two hours due to the rising water levels of Periyar River, which flows close to the runway. The arrival operations were stopped as a precautionary measure.
Using four 400 horsepower electric motors, the fire tender pumped out excess water from the Chengalthodu canal and diverted it to the northern and central canals running alongside the runway.
“We successfully managed to keep the runway from flooding for five days, until the situation turned grim by the night of August 14 when rains picked up,” recounts PS Jayan, manager of PR and Corporate Communication, CIAL.
The airport tarmac, communication server, electric equipment and substations were inundated in a few hours.
The arrival operations from 4 am to 7 am on August 15 were suspended, and subsequent departure operations, too, were halted. The airport authorities decided to shut down the flight and airport services till August 18.
A team of 20 staff members, including officers and core engineering staff, stayed back to monitor the situation but soon found themselves stranded on August 15.
“They did not have the facility to change dress, brush teeth or take a shower. We then asked them to take clothes from the duty-free shops. We also asked a hotel managed by Casino group to stay back to cook food for the staff,” says Jayan.
This arrangement also did not last for long. With the second day inside the airport, electricity was also cut off. Each one used their cell phones one at a time but all of it ran out of power.
Incidentally, the 20 airport staff had company. Around 2,000 people from the neighbouring areas took refuge at the T3 departure, which is the first floor of the International terminal. They managed with whatever food was available.
On August 18, people stranded at the airport, got out as the waters receded, although the damage the flood left behind was incredibly massive.
When CIAL got back on its feet
The mammoth task in front of the airport authorities was rebuilding the 2.6 km perimeter wall that collapsed in the floods. On August 20, engineer Rajendran agreed to put up a makeshift wall in three days. Around 500 labourers were mobilised and provided food to put a temporary 10 m high and 2.6 km long wall using tin sheets. By August 24, the perimeter wall was completed.
As the 800 runway lights, which had a serial connection, were affected in the floods, the engineers had to attend to individual connections. “In our WhatsApp group, after repairing every 100 runway light, we would cheer and put up a clapping emoticon for engineer Zacharia and his team,” says Jayan. The lights were restored in three days.
The solar panels, which powers CIAL and has a generation capacity of 30 Megawatts, too, took a beating. But by September 2, around 21 MW was restored.
The CIAL team received infrastructure support from Bengaluru and Erode.
Out of the 3,000 surveillance cameras, 1,000 cameras have been restored.
Inside the terminal, 22 X-ray machines, all furniture at the domestic terminal and four conveyor belts were damaged. “All furniture and conveyor belts were replaced and fixed. We also planned to deploy manpower to manage the conveyor belt, if it did not function. That was our plan B,” says Jayan.
CIAL deployed six service managers and four terminal managers when the Cochin Naval Base temporarily opened its tarmac for a few flight operations. All Haj pilgrims and students heading abroad for studies were rerouted to the Trivandrum airport.
After the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) certified, CIAL was ready to open on August 26. But during a meeting with various stakeholders, including airlines and ground handling agencies, it was learnt that several staff members were badly affected by the floods.
“In fact, a ground handling agency, which has 1,600 staff, only 400 were available. Several houses were flooded and some had to be airlifted.
Jayan also recalls how he managed to keep fake news at bay. “On August 10 and 11, we realised that there were false messages that Cochin airport was flooded. In order to keep a check on such news and reduce panic among the public, we created a template for posting announcements on social media platforms and our website, using green, red and black colours, where red is used to highlight important information,” he recounts.
On August 29, all operations resumed in full swing, with the runway wearing a fresh look.