Indian airports starting to strain as passenger numbers surge

Growing middle class choosing cheap flights from budget carriers is straining services, with major airports expected to be overloaded in under six years

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 6:37pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 10:15pm

India’s airports are struggling to cope with a massive surge in passengers and tens of billions of rupees must be spent to boost their capacity, analysts have warned.

The country is witnessing a huge boom in air travel as its growing middle class increasingly takes to the skies but experts say infrastructure is failing to keep up.

“There’s an urgent need for capacity building in major Indian airports as they are bursting at the seams and close to saturation,” said Binit Somaia, South Asia Director at the Centre for Aviation (CAPA).

India has seen a six-fold increase in passenger numbers over the past decade as people take advantage of better connectivity and cheaper fares thanks to a host of low-cost airlines.

Indian airports handled 265 million domestic passengers in 2016 and will cross 300 million this year, according to CAPA. The country’s entire airport network is only capable of handling 317 million passengers, it says.

According to data compiled by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), an Indian regulatory body, there were just 44 million Indians travelling by plane in 2008. CAPA predicts India will have 478 million fliers by 2036.

Aviation experts say the government faces a race against time to build the infrastructure to handle the soaring congestion.

“Some top airports have reached saturation. In the next five to seven years, the top 30 to 40 airports in India will be performing beyond their capacity,” said Somaia of the Sydney-based CAPA.

Flights have increased by around 20 per cent every year over the last three years, stretching many airports to breaking point.

Travellers can snap up tickets sometimes for as little as 1,000 rupees (US$15) – cheaper than some fares on the country’s rickety train network.

The aviation body predicts that New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport and Chennai’s International Airport will reach their handling capacity within four to six years.

The situation is even more pressing at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA). CAPA says it is at 94 per cent capacity and is “close to saturation”.

The government is building a new airport at Navi Mumbai, 30 kilometres away, to ease the burden. It has been repeatedly delayed due to land disputes and is currently expected to open in 2023.

“The situation at CSIA will worsen until the new airport is operational,” Amber Dubey, India head of aerospace and defence at global consultancy KPMG, told AFP, describing the delays as “unacceptable”.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made making air travel accessible to all a key priority since his election in 2014. He recently launched a scheme to connect remote regions of the country by air.

In the budget last month, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allocated US$613 million to the Airports Authority of India to expand facilities.

CAPA estimates that India needs to invest US$45 billion by 2030 to keep up with demand.