Instead of the familiar roar of a Boeing 777 kissing a brand new tarmac, the inauguration of Delhi's swanky Terminal 3 will be remembered more for the yelp of a dog being chased off India's longest runway. The dog clearly stole the thunder from India's largest terminal that took more than three years to build.
The story of Indian airports is not all glass, chrome and steel. There was a time when airports were merely an afterthought. As Kapil Kaul, CEO South Asia, CAPA, puts it, "Earlier, Indian aviation was only about Air India. That scenario has changed. Now it is also about the airports."
In 1998, public-private partnerships arrived on the Indian scene, changing the face of Indian aviation. Cochin International Airport became the first product of such a partnership. There have been four others- Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore.
The HT-MaRS Aviation Survey has ranked Bangalore airport as the best in the country for the second survey in a row. "The new Bangalore airport is an experience in itself. The coffee shops, bookstores and retail outlets make it much more attractive than the stark older one," said Tara Fernandes, student.
Though Bangalore airport has maintained its lead, the new Terminal 3 in Delhi, with its sheer size and snazzy interiors, has earned a nod of approval from passengers. But despite the shock-and-awe it created, it has yet to live upto its hype.
"With T3 we are blinded a bit by the glam but a lot of work needs to be done. The time required for disembarkation is too much, toilets need to be placed conveniently and security checks have to be streamlined," said Ram Mohan, a consultant in Delhi.
Over the years, the number of fliers using airports has increased, making them busy places indeed. Regional centres are gaining momentum. For instance, the number of passengers using Jaipur airport has risen by 250% since 2005-06. Patna has more than doubled the number of flights in the last year. Director-General of Civil Aviation, E K Bharat Bhushan feels that the growth is and will be equally 'well-spread'. "Thirty-five non- metro airports are being modernized at the moment. Smaller towns are coming up. The economics demands it," he said.
The 1460-acre Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar International Airport at Nagpur offers better air connectivity to domestic and foreign destinations, more passengers and more airlines. Given its geographical advantage, it links smaller cities and emerging metros in Vidarbha and Central India.
Today, international airlines such as Oman Air, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Buddha Airlines operate direct flights to the once sleepy airport at Lucknow.
But challenges lie ahead for airport development. Land acquisition (like that faced by the Navi Mumbai airport), scarcity of funds and security hassles are just some of them. As the number of airlines jostling for airspace has risen, air congestion is another problem that needs to be tackled.
Authorities in Indore were forced to build a smaller car park at the new terminal of the Devi Ahilyabai Holkar Airport due to land transfer issues.
"Airports should offer airlines the entire benefits of the back-end so that the airlines focus on quicker turn around times, landing and taking-off seamlessly without any glitches. That will save time and costs," says Kaul.
The task of modernising airports is still a work-in-progress.
"Modernisation is not just about snazzy buildings. Technology scale-ups, like installing a satellite-based tracking system are important as well," said Bhushan. "Looks aren't all that matters, after all."
But perhaps only in India, a trip to the airport can sometimes substitute for a trip to the zoo. In July 2011, a Kingfisher flight was stranded for hours when a few peacocks were sighted on the runway at Nagpur airport. Several barking deer and wild boar roam inside the vast airport campus. A major mishap was averted when an Indigo pilot tried to save two snakes on the runway last year.
Now, that truly is Incredible India!
(With inputs from Ruchir Kumar in Patna, Pradeep Kumar Maitra in Nagpur, Rashpal Singh & Sachin Saini in Jaipur and Anupam Srivastava in Lucknow)