It is good to hear that the country will have a score of new civilian airports by next year. Announcing this at the economic editors’ conference in New Delhi earlier this week, Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel spoke of roping in the private sector to build these new airports. This suggests the government wants to strengthen regional airline services to provide better connectivity to smaller cities, and to have more greenfield airports. Since airports won’t be viable unless they can handle large numbers of passengers, the government has rightly decided to redistribute passenger volumes and enable loss-making airports to become profitable.
That said, we have to take the minister’s other grand idea of creating a grid of airports in the next ten years — so that there’s an airport “within a radius of 50 kms anywhere” in the country — with a bit of brine. For it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to envisage an India where every village and city is connected to each other as long as a huge question mark hangs over the infrastructure at existing airports. It is no secret that airports in the country are literally buckling under a severe infrastructure and space crisis, the speed at which entrepreneurs are launching new airlines and trying to import world-class operating standards. Landing and parking slots are simply not available during peak hours at many places, while terminals are bursting at the seams in others, making it difficult for passengers to wade through check-in and security screening. Other stress points for airlines operating in the country include landing, parking, navigation, and other airport charges that are as much as 70 per cent higher than in other countries.
Under-utilisation of available equipment makes matters worse even in major hubs like Delhi and Mumbai, where airport authorities are only now waking up to the fact that secondary runways must be used for departures as well, to cut the ‘waiting time’ of planes taking off. Add to this the acute shortage of pilots facing the industry, and it is easy to see why aviation in India needs a lot more altitude before throttling back.