Does India need more airports? An insight into the past, present, and future of Indian aviation

Over the last decade, civil aviation in India has witnessed tremendous growth with the rise in air traffic, aircraft movements, and airport expansion activities. One of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets, Indian aviation is taking off rapidly, driven by a low air travel penetration and an increasing propensity of middle-class people to spend. The Government of India has made significant plans for civil aviation and allocated a huge budget to make robust air infrastructures to fuel growing air demand. At present, India has a total of 486 airports in the country, including airstrips and military bases, and more airports are planned to be built in the future. Does India need more airports? Without further ado, let’s delve right into the aviation scenario of India.

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Indian aviation scenario in the past

The history of Indian civil aviation can be traced back to 1911, when the first commercial aviation flight took place on 18 February, carrying 6500 pieces of mail from Polo ground of Allahabad to Naini. In 1932, J.R.D Tata initiated regular air mail in the country and founded an airline named Tata Airlines. After the end of World War II, Tata Airlines started operating under the brand name Air India. By the 1950s, some notable airlines viz. Hyderabad-based Deccan Airways and Kolkata-based Kalinga Airlines started operating air services in different parts of the country.

In 1953, Air Corporation Law was introduced in India, and the government became a major stakeholder in the carrier. With the passing of the Air Corporations Act 1953, all major airlines came under the control of the Indian government; eight domestic airlines were merged, and as a result, Indian Airlines came into being. Only two airlines were operational at that time; Indian Airlines provided domestic services, and Air India provided international services.

In the early 1990s, India deregulated the airline industry, opening the door for private players to operate scheduled air services within the country. The government repealed the Air Corporations Act in 1994 and allowed the entry of private carriers like Jet Airways, Air Sahara, ModLuft, Damania Airways, East West, etc.

Jet Airways entered the landscape of Indian aviation in 1993 and grew tremendously to become synonymous with premium air travel for discerning Indian travelers. It suspended its operations in 2019 and is now awaiting a fresh start with the launch of new flights in September 2022. East-West Airlines commenced operations in 1992 but vanished from Indian skies on 8 August 1996. Similarly, ModiLuft, another national-level private carrier, was launched in April 1993 in technical partnership with Lufthansa but shut down in 1996.

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Present scenario of civil aviation in India

Currently, around ten major airlines are offering air services in the Indian skies, including AirAsia, IndiGo, SpiceJet, Vistara, Akasa Air, Air India, Jet Airways, etc. In the last 15 years, the Indian airline industry has seen a high-growth passenger trajectory with a slow-and-steady opening up of the Indian skies and construction of aviation infrastructures). Currently, out of 486 existing airports, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) oversees 140 airports comprising 103 domestic and 37 international airports (10 customs airports are also operated).

India’s air traffic hovered close to 200 million passengers, including domestic and international travelers, prior to the pandemic, and the government is making efforts to double the number to 400 million over the coming few years. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic punctured the Indian civil aviation sector as air travel came to a standstill and pushed some carriers to the brink of bankruptcy. Now that the industry is on the recovery path, airports are bursting at the seams, and passenger numbers are picking up near to the pre-pandemic levels. In May 2022, airlines in India offered flight services to 1.20 domestic passengers. According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the passenger figure in May 2022 is five times greater than that of May 2021, when about 21 lakh passengers took to the skies. Pending further major disruptions, the air travel market of India, underpinned by robust economic expansion, is expected to overtake China and the US as the world’s third-largest air passenger market by 2030. The increase in the proportion of middle-income households and the number of domestic pairs has led to the fast-growing aviation sector in India. In line with surging air demand, the government is preparing a host of airport networks, including heliports and aerodromes, and India is projected to have a total of 220 airports by 2026.

 In March 2022, the Union Minister of Civil Aviation, Jyotiraditya Scindia, announced the plans to develop 220 new airports in just three years. The main question is, does India need more airports?

Airports in India

Needless to say, airports are the gateways to aviation to provide rapid worldwide transportation growth. They are a key link in the air transport journey chain and bring together many facilities and services to enable passengers and goods to move domestically and internationally. They can bring in wealth and create a multiplier effect on the country’s economy in terms of investments, tourism, and employment.

If we discuss the geography and population of India, it is the second-most populous and seventh-biggest country in the world. As compared to other big countries in terms of area and population, India has slightly less number of airports. Airlines can’t grow in isolation without expanding airport resources, so in recent years, the Indian government has expanded its efforts in the area of airport infrastructures through its policy framework.

In a bid to enhance connectivity to remote and regional areas of the country through the revival of existing airstrips and airports and make flying more affordable, the Government of India launched a regional connectivity scheme, namely the Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik (UDAN) scheme on 21 October 2016. It is the government’s initiative to jump-start the regional aviation market, change the lives of the middle class and make their dreams of flying a reality by offering affordable, economically viable, and profitable air travel on regional routes. The UDAN scheme aims to stimulate regional connectivity with efficient and fast transport connections to tier two and three-tier three cities. Among 956 routes awarded to connect 156 airports under the scheme, 419 flights connect 67 underserved/unserved airports, including helicopters and water aerodromes to date. More than 50 new airports or previously closed airports have started operations to facilitate the movement of citizens from tier II and tier-III cities lacking air services. The country has seen greenfield developments, with services beginning from Pakyong Airport, Tezu Airport, Kurnool Airport, etc.

Further developments include the launching of 100 airports across the country by 2024 and the opening of 16 new airports in 5 states, i.e., Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Maharastra, etc. Noida International Airport, slated to be India’s largest airport, is taking shape in Uttar Pradesh in India and will open in October 2024. Similarly, Navi Mumbai International Airport is being constructed to serve in parallel as an alternative to Mumbai’s existing airport and is slated to open in December 2024.

India has designated civil aviation development as an important agenda and allocated Rs. 10,667 crores (US$ 1.38 billion) to the Ministry of Civil Aviation in the Union Budget 2022-23, in which Rs 601 crore (the US $77.52 billion) has been separated for the UDAN scheme.

It’s clear that the government of India has given topmost priority to airport infrastructure built-up but does India need more airports?

Much of the nation’s aviation potential remains untapped as road transport comprises almost 85% of the country’s passenger traffic. In India, the road transport industry is still in the spotlight and remains the dominant mode of transport, followed by rail transport. The Indian rail network is the world’s third largest network which handles around 22.15 million passengers daily. In light of the majority of people using rail and road transport to fulfill their travel needs, isn’t it wiser to spend money on the development of road and rail networks instead of airports? Artificially low fares, level of image penetration into populated areas, and flexibility attract millions of Indians to opt for road and rail transport over air transport. So, should government deviate from its intense focus on initiating policies that ensure time-bound construction of world-class airports across the country? Why are Indian airports undergoing dynamic growth?

Although only 4% of the Indian population uses air transport, there is room for growth. The booming economy, healthy competition, and creation of aviation infrastructures have led to an exponential growth in air transport in the last 10-15 years, and Indian airports need to undergo dynamic growth with world-class advancements in passenger and cargo transportation to meet the spike in travel demand, propel overall development of the nation and enhance passenger experience in every step of the journey.

Airports in small cities can act as a lifeline to rural communities and thrust remote places into international stages with the establishment of an aviation gateway to the region. The places which are devoid of rail and road transport can rely on air travel to reach the state capital, regional or national metros, and global destinations. The construction of more airports, esp. in neglected smaller cities and towns, and their efficient use will encourage new business and promote industrialization and tourism, contributing to the all-around development of the nation.

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