After allowing airlines to add almost a thousand extra flights to India’s already over-crowded airports since last October, the government has decided that for now, Delhi and Mumbai airports can’t handle any more flights.
And so, at this year’s summer-scheduling conference, which ended on Monday, airlines met to discuss new landing and take-off arrangements with the ministry of civil aviation, and airlines were told that until physical upgrades at airports were complete, only 3,446 flights a day would be allowed, with the number of flights at Delhi and Mumbai being capped at a maximum of 30 take-offs or landings per hour.
That’s the same number as the government allowed for the winter schedule, which lasts from early October till the end of March, and is five more than the maximum movements that the Air Traffic Guild says its under-staffed and over-worked air traffic controllers can handle.
India’s airports—especially those at Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, which see more than 60% of all domestic traffic—have been increasingly clogged as more Indians are taking to the skies.
Airlines spent most of 2006 increasing their fleets, while intense competition drove prices downwards. As a result, 33 million passengers flew in 2006, compared to less than 10 million in 2003. But airport upgrades have been mostly cosmetic. As a result, during rush hour at those airports, flights often hover between 14-30 minutes above their destinations before they can land.
For the biggest airlines such as Jet Airways India Ltd and Deccan Aviation, the parent company of Air Deccan, the lack of new slots at airports is not expected to be a big issue.
“It doesn’t really have that much of an impact on our schedules,” said Anurag Jain, a revenue management expert at Air Deccan. “We got most of the slots we wanted, and the rest of it, we can adjust.”
For smaller airlines such as IndiGo, which currently has eight A320 the impact will be minimal too, said its chief executive officer Bruce Ashby. “The process, you could argue, is not particularly favourable to younger and growing airlines, but it seems to have worked well in our case,” he said.
Ashby referred to the fact that airlines have some rights over the slots that they flew last summer and the years before, which means that newer airlines and their planes have to jostle for slots.
For airlines such as Spicejet, that have seen their fleets increase since last October, the decision means their new planes may not necessarily be used to add extra flights to Mumbai or Delhi.
The three-day scheduling conference, which wrapped up on Monday, is a biannual event where airlines come to get new landing and take-off slots approved.
Often airlines with goverment approval are able to trade slots amongst themselves to fine-tune their flying schedules. But in an attempt to manage traffic during the peak hours, director-general of civil aviation Kanu Gohain and Airports Authority of India chairman K. Ramalingam wanted the airlines to be careful as they changed their schedules to avoid overcrowding.
Congestion at the airports—while a cost-concern for airlines and a headache for passengers—has become a key focus for the new civil aviation secretary Ashok Chawla, who listed infrastructure issues as his top concern the month he took over.
It has also become a political and legal issue, with the courts asking the ministry of civil aviation to get airlines to revoke a country-wide Rs150 per ticket congestion charge which they started tacking on to tickets in late 2006.
Airlines say civil aviation minister Praful Patel told Parliament that he had asked the airlines to make a decision by 21 March on the government’s request to revoke the charge.
But neither the Federation of Indian Airlines, which represents the airlines in such issues, nor the individual airlines, said they had made up their mind on the subject.