Mayday for airports: Urgent need for de-congestion plans to speed up

One of the peculiar characteristics of Indian infrastructure planning in general is the systemic inability to estimate future demand or, put another way, plan for growth. The upshot of this failure is that Indians remain chronically short of basic amenities like hospital beds, public education facilities, railway tickets and, these days, even sufficient spectrum to make uninterrupted calls. Nowhere is this weakness more in evidence than in Indian airports, public and private. With rising incomes and falling fares — neither of these being accidental developments — expanding the demand for air travel by several orders of magnitude over the past decade, almost half of India’s key airports may be breaching their capacity in FY19 and several others have already done so. Congestion in Indian airports, once considered an early noughties' problem that privatisation was designed to address, has become a crisis all over again. Travellers from the two major hubs of Delhi and Mumbai will not be surprised to learn that the two are among the least punctual airports in a worldwide ranking, weighing in 451 and 509 respectively, in a survey of 513 airports. Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata are not exactly stellar performers, with rankings in the mid-200s.

All of which suggests that India’s airports, whether operated through the Airports Authority of India or the private sector, have been poor planners. Consider the figures, which Hindustan Times obtained only through a Right to Information application. Mumbai had breached its annual capacity of 45 million travellers in FY18 by 3.5 million. Delhi is headed that way, touching 65 million in FY18 against a capacity of 70 million. Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune also breached capacity in the last financial year and the tourist hub of Goa had equalled it. All airport operators are seriously behind the curve. Although the boom in the domestic aviation market thanks to the expansion of low-cost airlines has been in evidence for some years now, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved the expansion and upgrade of Chennai, Guwahati and Lucknow by the Airports Authority of India only in May this year. And Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha, whose UDAN scheme is focused on creating demand on underserved regional routes, has said the government would be investing Rs 1 trillion to increase the capacity of Indian airports. Private airports also have major expansion plans.

The question, of course, is: When will the travelling public in India get to partake of this additional capacity? The government’s plans, characteristically assigned a clunky acronym NABH Nirman (Nex-gen Airports for Bharat Nirman) and soaring targets — to enhance capacity to one billion trips in 10 to 15 years — suggest that over-capacity will remain an issue for some years yet. Privately managed Navi Mumbai airport, hanging fire for at least a decade over land acquisition and settlement issues, is expected to raise tenders next month, which means, if things work out without further hitches, the new terminal for 30 million passengers will be ready only in about four years. It is possible that all this new capacity may have been exhausted by the time it comes on stream. The inconvenience of long flight delays, however, is the least of the problem. Crowded airports represent a permanent safety hazard, and it is the civil aviation ministry’s responsibility to ensure this never becomes a reality.

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