Elite club: Delhi becomes one of the world's busiest airports

Interior of Delhi airport. Photo: Shutterstock
Delhi airport handled nearly 56 million passengers last year, joining the ranks of some of its busiest global peers such as Bangkok, Singapore and John F Kennedy International Airport in New York.

All these airports have about 50 million passengers passing through annually. 

For Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, this was the highest traffic growth — 21 per cent, year on year — in four years. An increase in the number of domestic passengers, foreign tourist arrivals and transit passengers fuelled the growth. This mirrored the expansion in domestic air traffic.

In 2016, domestic airlines flew nearly 100 million passengers, registering a 23 per cent annual growth. About 70 per cent of passenger traffic at Delhi airport was domestic; the rest was international.

A Delhi airport spokesperson said among all airlines, IndiGo and Air India added the highest number of flights in 2016. The highest capacity addition was on the Kolkata and the Dubai routes — 350,000 and 989,000 seats, respectively. 

Air India Express, IndiGo and Jet Airways added flights to Dubai. GoAir, IndiGo, Jet Airways and Vistara added flights to Kolkata.

“This surge in traffic is mainly because of domestic growth. Many first-time fliers are adding to the boom,” said Sidharath Kapur, president (airports) at the GMR group, which manages Delhi International Airport (DIAL).

He added, “The ability to spend has grown manifold with a simultaneous boost from a low-fare environment.”


Another factor contributing to the growth was a rise in foreign tourist arrivals. Delhi is the number one gateway for tourist inflows, according to the tourism ministry data. In 2016, India received 8.8 million overseas tourists, about 10 per cent more than in the previous year.

Transit traffic, too, is on the rise. It accounted for around 20 per cent of Delhi airport’s traffic, though this was less than that of Dubai or Singapore.

Kapur said the increase in flights by domestic airlines had a positive impact on the airport’s growth as a hub.  “You need a strong carrier capable of building India as a hub. You go to any hub airport, and there would be at least one strong airline supporting it. Now, Air India is getting bigger, it is adding new planes, starting new routes, and private airlines have also started looking international. So you will have many new international destinations getting connected with India. That is what will drive the hub concept,” Kapur said.  He added, “For instance, a passenger wants to travel from Sydney to London, or from Singapore to any destination in Europe, and looks for the most optimum fare and time. One would have attractive options from Air India and Jet Airways.”

In 2010, transit traffic accounted for 2.3 per cent of all traffic in Delhi; it rose to about 20 per cent in 2015, according to a report in aviation website anna.aero. Sources said transit traffic was growing as networks increased. 

Six new routes were added in 2016 — Thiruvananthapuram, Kanpur and Bathinda in domestic, and Vancouver, Madrid and Male on the international side. 

The DIAL spokesperson said the transfer traffic grew 23 per cent a year over the last five years but did not give a specific figure.

New routes coming up in 2017 would be Washington and Copenhagen, both from Air India. LOT Polish Airlines too is planning a service between Warsaw and Delhi, according to sources. There might also be more direct connections to African nations. Currently, only two African carriers fly to Delhi — Ethiopian Airlines and Air Mauritius.

“At present, Delhi Airport has the largest network in the country. It is connected with 59 domestic and 68 international destinations,” the spokesperson added.  But there are other factors too. Capacity constraints at Mumbai (the second-busiest airport in the country) and the lack of another large airport in northern India are some. 

“Airlines see opportunities in Delhi, as it has a large catchment area. Uttar Pradesh has had only two airports — Lucknow and Varanasi — while service to Kanpur started only recently. Patna airport has constraints. Lucknow, Jaipur or Amritsar have international flights too, but those are limited and people travel to Delhi for connections,” said a senior executive of a low-cost domestic airline. With scarcity of slots and parking bays, domestic airlines have been unable to add new services from Mumbai. 

“Mumbai runs most of its operation off one runway, whereas Delhi has the luxury of three that work simultaneously and this significantly helps in lowering air traffic congestion. Delhi does not have a second airport and airlines are adding flights at the existing airport despite higher costs,” said aviation consultant Mark Martin.

DIAL has taken up a Rs 16,000-crore master plan to increase airport capacity to 109 million passengers by 2034. Building a fourth runway, a new terminal and expansion of existing ones, building new hotels and commercial establishments are part of this plan.

“As an airport operator, we facilitate this growth, provide the infrastructure and work with airlines to develop this growth,” Kapur said.

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