Sunday, May 21, 2023

India is on a hitherto unseen airport expansion. But is it enough?

It’s not a garden in a terminal; it’s a terminal in a garden!” That is how Hari Marar, managing director & CEO of Bengaluru International Airport, refers to its recently launched Terminal 2. ‘Garden terminal’ is a departure from the steel-and-glass template for most global airports, with a nature theme filling up the terminal complex with six lakh plants and 10,000 sq.ft of green walls, and the use of sustainable materials like bamboo and locally-sourced granite in construction. Bengaluru T2 was among the nine buildings CNN listed as those that will “shape the world in 2023”.

In fact, it is already happening. A month ago, walking up this garden path, Foxconn chief Young Liu was so impressed that the contract manufacturer for Apple’s iPhone promptly agreed to build a manufacturing facility near the airport investing Rs8,000 crore. It will create 50,000 jobs.

“It was great to note the infrastructure readiness… and the availability of social infrastructure around the plot earmarked for the project,” Liu wrote later to Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. “The efficiency of cargo handling at the airport does have a significant bearing on our operations and metrics, as we rely on air freight for our multiple products to a considerable extent.”

Bengaluru T2 is just one of the poster boys of India’s aviation boom, as the country taxies for take off into becoming the world’s biggest domestic aviation market, as Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia mentioned in an interview with THE WEEK a while ago. “Look at the growth potential,” he said. “You have just 14 crore flyers out of a population of 140 crore. Which other aviation market has the potential that India has? I am looking at 40 crore air travellers by 2027.”

According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, 3.75 crore passengers travelled on domestic flights in just three months from January to March this year―a growth of 21 per cent. It is usually a lean season, compared with summer holidays in May and June or the festive season from October to December. In fact, the DGCA estimates an air passenger growth of 52 per cent this year.

All those passengers, and the many aircraft that carriers have ordered to fly them, also need airports and runways. And that is an area that has not kept pace with the spike.

“Big aircraft orders demonstrate the confidence in the India aviation story. But they also need bases to park the aircraft,” said Sidharath Kapur, who was earlier head of the airports divisions of Adani and GMR, two of the biggest private airport operators in India. “Airlines can expand quickly―order new planes or lease to increase capacity. But airports cannot do that. Airport expansion takes years, so airports need to be planned well in advance.”

Despite the number of airports in the country doubling from 74 in 2014 to 141 last year, the real McCoy will be the blitzkrieg in this area in the months to come. A total of Rs98,000 crore have been earmarked for airport expansion across the country over the next two years; a third of it by the state-run Airports Authority of India itself. In addition to the much-talked about new airports adjoining Delhi and Mumbai, a clutch of other airports, some new and some upgraded, are getting ready. Additionally, the government also plans to develop 100 airports by next year under the UDAN regional connectivity scheme.

28/05/2023 K. Sunil Thomas/The Week

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