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Terminal sickness

The mess that is Delhi Airport could have been avoided with some planning, writes HS Bhatia.

india Updated: Mar 25, 2008 22:39 IST
HS Bhatia

With dozens of flights cancelled every day and scores delayed, not to mention the extreme chaotic conditions on the ground, Delhi Airport is a sordid mess. Such conditions at the airport of the country’s capital can have a serious snowballing effect on future aviation growth and, in turn, on business, trade and exports in India. For the aviation sector, this is not an easy time, especially for companies like GMR and GVK that are involved in the development and management of the two largest metro airports in Delhi and Mumbai, carrying between them about 56 per cent of the international and 44 per cent of the domestic traffic of the country. The two airports are also being used as test pads for the Public-Private Partnership model for future development of airports in India.

The crisis faced at Delhi Airport has become an annual event. One reason for this is the unprecedented growth of traffic during the last three-four years — a growth of 32 per cent and 17-18 per cent in the domestic and international sectors respectively. This, as against the projected domestic growth of 12-13 per cent and international growth of 9-10 per cent. Another reason for the crisis is that the aviation sector has remained frozen for the last 10-12 years, suddenly coming alive, thereby making existing infrastructure desperately deficient. A third reason for the chaos is that despite the advice given to the Delhi International Airport (P) Limited (Dial) about not disturbing any of the existing facilities — except for minor modifications to improve the flow and introduce some ambience to the terminals — large-scale modifications in the already saturated terminals are already underway, causing serious congestions, delays and avoidable inconvenience to travellers.

With multiple modifications going on, there is only one entry gate in the international terminal, where serpentine queues form during peak hours, in addition to visitors jamming the areas in front of the terminal. It is not clear why two or three entry gates are not opened and why the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel are not allowed to be assisted by volunteers to check travel documents of passengers.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation must share part of the blame for the current mess. For efficient airport operations, capacity must be matched by growth. By declaring an ‘Open Sky’ policy for domestic airlines and cargo flights without enhancing the capacity of the airport, a dozen or so new airlines were inducted, generating about 25 per cent growth, thus creating severe congestion both in airspace and within the airport.

The combined additional new aircraft ordered by Air India, Jet Airways, Kingfisher, SpiceJet, Air Deccan, Go Air, Paramount and others were 102 wide body and 389 narrow body aircraft. During the process of induction of these aircraft, one saw heavy congestion build up at the airports. The government should have analysed the impact of severe competition in airfares and its effect on passenger growth. To meet the challenge of emerging traffic and a changing passenger profile, Delhi Airport operators should have recognised the need for an optimised value chain within a value system in designing, programming and providing capacity of services, matching the growth to the fullest extent.

There are almost 161 domestic departures from Delhi Airport to various destinations within India, out of which 41 are by low-cost carriers (LCC). As the load factor of LCCs is relatively high, the additional load at the airport becomes phenomenal. Similarly, international traffic almost doubled during the last year. The average annual growth of international carriers at Delhi Airport during the last three years was 22.6 per cent — 8.1 per cent of the average growth. In the eight years prior to this period, the international growth was only 4.3 per cent. During 2005-06, the growth recorded was 17.1 per cent, more than double the average global figure of 8.3 per cent. These factors should have caused the authorities to sit up and do the needful. A separate satellite airport to Delhi to accommodate LCCs and general aviation operations could have been set up. In the case of cargo, the situation is even more serious.

Dial has set some very unrealistic targets for completion of work before the Commonwealth Games. Two immediate casualties of such an approach are quality and cost. This is in addition to the considerable inconvenience and adverse publicity. It would have been an easy transition from public sector to private management. Instead, we find a humungous mess.

HS Bhatia is a former Member (Engineering), International Airports Authority of India