Frequent fliers who travel for business or work often opt for peak hour flights to make the best use of their time. However, air passengers may soon end up shelling out more for travel during rush hour if the government has its way.
Guruprasad Mohapatra, chairman, Airports Authority of India (AAI), told The Hindu that the government is mulling over a proposal to impose a surcharge on airlines for operating flights during peak hours to enhance airport capacity and to avoid flight delays. The idea, he added, has already been discussed with airlines at a meeting.
What are peak hours? According to the daily, an airport typically sees four 'peaks' in a day: Around 6 a.m.-8.30 a.m.; 10.30 a.m.-noon; 4 p.m.-6 p.m. and 7 p.m.-9.30 p.m. Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Terminal and the Indira Gandhi International airport in Delhi are two of the most congested airports in the country and see up to 52 and 73 movements - landings and take-offs - per hour, respectively, during peak timings.
At present, the time of the day has no bearing on the landing fees paid by airlines - it is based on the weight of an aircraft. "There is a large window of non-peak hours that we are persuading airlines to consider. In fact, we are considering whether we can introduce charges for flight operations during peak hours. A concept note is being prepared and global models are being studied. We want to encourage use of non-peak hours. This is right now at a proposal stage and a final decision is yet to be taken," said Mohapatra, adding that congestion during peak hours should not be allowed.
India is not the first country to think along these lines. London's Heathrow Airport, which is Europe's busiest, reportedly introduced the formula in 1972 to check air traffic congestion, when it was already witnessing 72 movements during peak hours. In addition, it levies a steep penalty on airlines that fail to be punctual.
However, the concept has evoked mixed reactions from stakeholders at home. A senior official from a domestic carrier told the daily that "We don't welcome such a proposal. The move, if put into effect, is unlikely to change airline behaviour as peak-hour slots are almost impossible to get in large metros such as Mumbai and Delhi. It will become an additional charge on airlines holding peak-hour slots. A high-cost environment where airlines pay high fees for airport infrastructure as well as fuel is counter-productive to the growth of a burgeoning market like India."
On the other hand, an aviation industry insider with experience at a major airport pointed out that the move would help spread demand through the day. Besides, if passengers can pay extra for more comfort and leg room and priority baggage, they are likely to be willing to pay more to fly during popular timings. In any case, leisure travellers looking for cheaper fares will still have the option of flying at non-peak hours.
Mohapatra added that AAI is preparing a plan to increase Delhi's hourly capacity over the next three years, which will be presented to the Ministry of Civil Aviation. Furthermore, measures will be taken to reduce congestion at the Mumbai airport by measures such as replacing flights operated by smaller aircraft such as ATR72 with bigger planes like A320s, where two stations are capable of handling the bigger aircraft.
The upside to the proposal, at least for business travellers, whose employers foot travel expenses, is lesser congestion at the airport.