The rapid expansion in India's urban population needs long-term planning and demands new airport capacity to be built within the coming decade. Sadly this has not been the case.
India will see the highest increase in its urbanisation with its existing urban population doubling by 2050. We already see this trend in all the major Indian cities. The city of Delhi has become the National Capital Region as Gurugram and Noida have become integral parts of the megapolis. The cities of Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai are similarly expanding and dispersing populations across large geographical areas.
This rapid expansion needs long-term planning and demands new airport capacity to be built within the coming decade. Sadly this has not been the case.
Airport capacity expansion has been lopsided
Till date, the capacity expansion at Indian airports has mostly focused on the terminals. Ask any Indian airport operator for capacity details and they will promptly recite their terminal capacity numbers along with glossy photographs of their latest construction. Missing is the total capacity of the airport which includes land-side capacity (catering, cargo, office, and crew facilities, car parking, drop-off and pick-up areas etc.), the airside capacity (runway, taxiway, parking bay capacity), in addition to the terminal capacity.
For a truly comprehensive picture, one must also include the capacity of the airspace around the airport to ensure planes can arrive, hold, land, depart and exit in an efficient manner.
Contrary to popular claims, it is the airside and airspace capacity that is most critical. And our slot-constrained airports reflect the lack of focus on this crucial aspect.
Furthermore, most airports across the country are single-runway operations. Consequently they provide no resiliency in the event of an emergency. Indeed, with amazing regularity we see a complete disruption of our national air transportation system if even one runway at a major airport is shut-down.
One of the ways that this needs to be addressed is via a determined effort towards encouraging airport competition (read more here).
Catchment areas are large but only catered to by single airports
Catchment areas -- the areas from which an airport gets traffic -- are large enough to justify multiple airport systems. Yet, in a testament to lobbies and vested interests multiple airports have not come up. This situation is not sustainable. Failing the development of multiple airports, expanded airport monopolies will continue to impact affordability. This will impact demand and impede growth.
For instance, Bengaluru’s catchment covers Chikaballapura to the North, Hosur to the South, Ramanagara to the Southwest and everything in between. A total population in excess of 12 million plus and growing. Served by only one airport. Ironically, the government agreed to close HAL airport to commercial operation thereby limiting competition and impacting passenger convenience. The current Kempegowda airport will saturate by 2031-2032. Even the existing airport operator agrees the state must start planning for a second airport. To achieve the government’s goal of de-congesting Bengaluru, and develop industry in the Mysuru and Hassan areas, the airport should be ideally located somewhere around the towns of Ramanagara and Channapatna. But this is not even being discussed let alone being planned for.
This challenge is not limited to Bengaluru. Most metro cities including Mumbai and Delhi also need secondary and tertiary airports to come up. Mumbai has already seen the commissioning of Navi-Mumbai airport but with the same developer for both airports it is simply an extension of the airport monopoly. One only hopes that the same situation does not play out with Jewar airport.
Airports are economic multipliers, multi-airports ensure benefits are distributed
Airports are economic multipliers. In fact, the very presence of an airport leads to growth in the immediate area. Thus, multi-airport systems will provide for growth that is not concentrated to one area of the city. Once again using Bengaluru and Delhi as examples it is evident that the airport clearly benefits residents of certain parts of the city while making for “uneasy-connectivity” for other parts. When layered with hotel capacity growth and other numbers like housing, safety and spending – there is a clear and visible impact.
Snapshot of second airports coming up across key cities
Some cities have plans for a second airport. Jewar airport in Noida if planned judiciously can compete with Delhi airport; Navi Mumbai ideally should compete with the existing Mumbai airport (though unlikely); and Bengaluru certainly should start planning for a second airfield in addition to pushing for the reopening of HAL. Cities like Kolkata, Chennai and Pune are wanting for airport capacity and additional delays will only hamper the growth prospects for the cities.
How soon will we see multi-airport systems?
As the demand continues to grow the current commercial fleet of 500-plus aircraft is likely to double within the next 7-10 years. As such, a focus on building multi-airport systems is critical. Multi-airport systems is the way to make airports compete. For demand, for airlines and against each other – thereby driving choice, convenience and affordability.
Single airport systems will not only hamper growth but will have other impacts that flow through to the cities they serve.
It is time for the country to embrace multi-airport systems. They are needed and needed fast. For growth. For affordability. For connectivity.
Devesh Agarwal is the President of the Bangalore Chamber of Industry and Commerce (BCIC). The views expressed are personal. Satyendra Pandey is the former head of strategy at a fast-growing airline. Previously, he was with the Centre for Aviation (CAPA) where he led the advisory and research teams. Satyendra has been involved in restructuring, scaling and turnarounds.
First Published: IST