Business Today

Wanted: better infrastructure

Overcrowded and inadequate terminals, delayed flights and a lack of space for parking planes are just some of the problems plaguing the Indian aviation sector. The good news is that things may begin to change for the better from next year.

By Kushan Mitra        Print Edition: Sept 9, 2007

Indian airports are bursting at the seams. There isn’t enough space for passengers to move about freely, and worse, inadequate and antiquated infrastructure is causing so-called “traffic jams” in the sky. Planes, typically, have to circle over airports for several minutes before finding a landing slot. Little wonder then that flights between Delhi and Mumbai, which used to take 95 minutes before 2003, now take at least two hours.

This is endemic at almost every major airport in the country, and is leading to a 5-20 per cent increase in flying times and resulting in additional fuel consumption, increased maintenance costs, employee overtimes, unsatisfactory on-time performance and causing avoidable inconvenience to the travelling public. “Airlines are losing an additional Rs 320 crore every year because of the current inadequacies and congestion,” says Saroj K. Datta, Executive Director, Jet Airways. Using this estimate, poor physical infrastructure accounted for 16 per cent of the airline industry’s 2006-07 losses of Rs 2,000 crore.

Delhi International Airport (DIAL), which operates the Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA), handled 20.4 million passengers last year against a capacity of 12 million. The corresponding figures for Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International (CSIA) are 22 million and 14 million, respectively; the rated capacity of Mumbai airport even after the ongoing revamp will be just 40 million.

But there is good news around the corner. In March 2008, the new Hyderabad Airport will be up and running with a rated capacity in the first phase of 12 million passengers. A few weeks later Bangalore’s new airport will open its doors with a rated capacity of 17 million passengers in its first phase.

“The development of infrastructure in the south will give aviation in this region a massive fillip,” says M. Thiagarajan, CEO, Paramount Airways, adding that work on Chennai’s new airport is already underway. “All major southern airports have the potential to become major hubs.” In fact, Cochin International Airport (CIAL) was India’s first private airport and has seen the city becoming a small hub of sorts.

However, Delhi and Mumbai account for 44.3 per cent of India’s total air traffic, and work, particularly at the latter, has been slow. Mumbai International Airport (MIAL) was horrified to discover that the Airports Authority of India (AAI) had neither detailed land records of the city’s airport nor data on encroachment, and this has dramatically slowed work down. That said, the drainage system on Mumbai’s main runway was improved. Result: though there were delays, there were no major closures during this monsoon.

The most dramatic plans, however, for any existing airport in India are for IGIA. Terminal 3 is being prepared for a mid-2010 inauguration which will give DIAL a capacity to handle 40 million passengers every year. The airport operator is already building a brand new domestic terminal and parallel runways; both will be operational by 2008.

Then, in recent weeks, the government has contemplated approval for an airport in Uttar Pradesh that will also serve Delhi, and is talking of using a disused airstrip in Kalyan near Mumbai’s satellite city of Thane to ease congestion at CSIA. “However, if the time and money taken to start Kalyan is unviable, it might not be a worthwhile exercise.

I believe that Navi Mumbai’s new airport should be operational by mid-2013,” explains Civil Aviation Secretary Ashok Chawla.

At the same time, the government is trying to promote aviation in secondary cities. “We are working all out on this, and by 2010 you should see at least 50 airports under the ambit of the Airports Authority of India have been dramatically upgraded. Work is progressing at a rapid pace in Goa and Pune, but we are also working fast in Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Trivandrum,” says Chawla.

But questions remain. “Where will those (new) planes fly to?” asks Gary Kingshott, CEO, JetLite. “You will need to fly planes from small airports to major cities because those are where people want to fly. I doubt if you’ll see much traffic between small cities,” he argues. And recently, both DIAL and MIAL issued circulars advising airlines not to request more slots for small planes such as ATRs and CRJs. “These aircraft require greater aerial separation and cannot clear runways fast enough, which means we cannot process as many aircraft as we would like to,” says a DIAL spokesperson.

Incidentally, infrastructure issues are not limited to physical infrastructure on the ground. Airlines also complain about lack of airspace. “The Defence Ministry controls a lot of airspace; this prevents straight flight paths, particularly on routes between the north and west,” complains SpiceJet’s Chairman Siddhanta Sharma. “The Air Traffic Control (ATC) situation is also a cause for concern,” he adds.

ATC officials claim that the government has not been treating them at par with other segments of the aviation industry, and at the same time, there have several “near-miss” incidents recently as air traffic has exploded.

Responds Chawla: “Admittedly 35 per cent of the airspace in India is controlled by the armed forces, but we have recently started a pilot project in Chennai, where armed forces and civilian controllers are colocated, and we have flexible use of airspace for better utilisation. As regards ATC, we have just recruited 375 new controllers and I believe we will be able to address this shortage within the next few months. On the technology front, upgrades need to be made, and we are doing that, including working with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), to develop a satellite-based system.”

The last piece of the infrastructural puzzle is simply one of human resources. “It is estimated that the industry will require around 2,000 additional pilots over the next 2-3 years to cater to the known fleet expansion plans of the Indian carriers. Flying schools in India are not equipped to meet this demand,” says Jet’s Datta. To cope with the shortfall of pilots and engineers required for the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) plans of various players (see MRO: The Next Big Thing), foreigners are being hired. The Civil Aviation Ministry estimates that close to 600 foreign pilots are flying in India today.

However, working with Canadian simulator firm CAE, the ministry is upgrading pilot training infrastructure in India. Says Chawla: “While we believe that there are 400 pilots under training in India at flying schools or at aero clubs, five times that number is being trained abroad, so the situation should ease in the next couple of years.”

“The instability brought about in the industry will lead to growth pangs,” says Kingshott, “but I expect the situation to improve dramatically within the next few years as infrastructure and human resources get up to speed.” One can only hope that India’s airlines can survive that period without going into a tailspin.

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