The government’s announcement that it will expedite the construction of a greenfield airport at Jewar, near Noida, couldn’t have come at a better time.
As India’s airport infrastructure creaks under the weight of increasing footfalls and squeezed capacities at the airside as well as inside terminal buildings, a steadfast airport capacity buildup is the need of the hour.
Mumbai is already bursting at the seams and the airport at Delhi is already saturated. Building an alternate to the existing airport at Delhi makes eminent sense, though this should have happened much earlier.
London has five major airports, New York has three. Delhi may get a second airport only in some years.
Remember, three out of four flyers in India use one of the 10 busiest airports. The six busiest airports handled over 175 million passengers in 2016-17, which means even among the top 10 airports, these six saw two in three air passengers.
Creaking Airport Infrastructure
At least four airports - at Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad - are already handling passengers in excess of their maximum indicative handling capacity.
India’s air traffic growth still comes from its large metros, with the top 10 airports lying across Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata and so on. This means though there are airports/airstrips aplenty in smaller towns and cities, these do not witness enough footfalls.
The feverish growth in domestic aviation in the country over the last several years has brought into focus the woeful lack of aviation infrastructure across the busiest cities, with little relief in sight. India’s top 10 airports handled nearly double the amount of traffic in calendar 2018 at 232 million compared with just 124 million in 2013.
So airport queues are getting longer, flight movement and on-time performance of airlines is getting worse and generally, India’s domestic flyers are spending more time than ever before in reaching their destinations.
Earlier policy decisions, such as having a condition of 150-km distance between existing and new airports etc have already stymied the growth of airport infrastructure. Unlike the other growing markets, we still do not operate multiple airports around our big cities.
Sample this: one Indian airline reported only 34% flights on time from Mumbai airport this February. That means two out of every three flights of this airline were delayed. In fact, Mumbai’s story epitomizes the severe infrastructure squeeze across our busy airports.
Earlier, flights managed to arrive/depart from Mumbai at about 50% on-time statistic, but the latest DGCA data show the best performance out of this choked airport was 48.9% in February.
This means, at least every second flight landing or departing from Mumbai was delayed, whichever airline you chose to fly. The current Mumbai airport has been strained beyond capacity and plans to build a new one at Navi Mumbai have been horribly delayed.
According to analysts at Kotak Institutional Equities, airports at Hyderabad and Goa (which come in the list of the top 10 airports) have already reached one-and-a-half times their capacity. The one at Mumbai is operating at 121% of its capacity while the country’s busiest airport – at Delhi -- has also reached saturation with 101% capacity utilization in 2016-17.
As the government has said in its
reply in Lok Sabha, Delhi had the maximum daily aircraft movement at 1143 last fiscal, followed by Mumbai at 870 and Bengaluru at 488. Where Will Airlines Park Their Planes?
Choked airports may worry flyers, but India’s airlines continue to order aircraft at alarming rates in anticipation of continued traffic growth.
IndiGo, Jet Airways, SpiceJet and GoAir have together placed orders for 835 aircraft, with deliveries staggered till FY2025. This, on an existing base of 558 aircraft.
This rapid fleet addition will require greater aircraft handling capacity at airports, the Kotak analysts say.
“Capacity at some of top ten airports by number of passengers handled has already been exhausted; most of these airports are undergoing capacity expansion which would come through only in the next 2-4 years leading to limited passenger growth at some of these airports.”
The Delhi airport is expected to handle 85 million passengers by 2022 against 64 million now and capacity expansion of Terminals I and III has been envisaged by 2020.
Mumbai, two phases of the yet-to-be-operational Navi Mumbai airport should start functioning by 2022.
By then, Mumbai would need to handle 65 million passengers each year against 40 million now.
Kolkata should see doubling of capacity by 2021. Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Goa airports should also see some amount of capacity addition.
But these planned capacity enhancements may not prove adequate given our double digit traffic growth projections.
The government is doing its bit by operationalising ghost airports under the regional connectivity scheme UDAN and also planning to upgrade some existing ones but is looking for a major share of the investments to come from the private sector.
Sindhu Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Delhi.