New Delhi/Mumbai: If your travel plans for the next few weeks include flying in or out of Delhi’s airport, here’s some advice: fly in the afternoon, or the evenings.
And if you’re really tempted to take that super-convenient early morning flight, just take a quick look at what happened at Delhi airport on Friday, the first day of serious fog in a season that could last all the way to the end of January.
By 10.30am, after five hours of less than 100m visibility on both the runways at the airport, close to 50 domestic flights, and about 14 international flights were either delayed for take-offs, or prevented from landing.
Causing delay: File picture of an aircraft landing at the Delhi airport in New Delhi on a foggy morning.
At the airport, passengers were packed in so tight that the airport asked airlines to put passengers on planes that then sat on the tarmac. The airport, which is operated by a private consortium led by the GMR Group, has added some extra space by building a temporary structure near the entrance of the airport, and has promised this year’s fog experience will be better than last year’s.
“Learning from last year’s experience, we have worked on a strategy with the airlines to systemize the movement of passengers from the extension to the check-in area and onward to the security hold area based on the departure status of their flight,” said Arun Arora, a spokesman for Delhi International Airport Pvt. Ltd, on email.
“This was a particularly painful inauguration of fog season,” said Bruce Ashby, the CEO of low-cost carrier IndiGo, run by InterGlobe Enterprises Ltd. On Thursday, the airline had completed all the formalities—including the very expensive training of pilots—to become compliant with a ‘Category IIIB’ standard, which allows its planes to fly when runway visibility is as low as 100m.
But the fog on Friday was thick as soup, and visibility dropped to as low as 50m, crippling the entire airport and every airline. “I don’t think that there’s anybody you can blame for the situation; it felt like everybody did the best that they could,” said Ashby.
The resulting delays cascaded through the entire day, leaving thousands of passengers from all the airlines stranded at airports such as Nagpur, Jaipur, Amritsar and elsewhere. At 4.30 in the afternoon, just eight of 45 arrivals were listed as on time, because it took the airlines so long to recover from the morning’s delays.
Jet Airways (India) Ltd, the biggest airline by passengers carried, for instance, had eight flights delayed by more than an hour. Its domestic fleet is composed mostly of Boeing 737s, which are difficult to upgrade to the category III requirements. The Airbus A320s that IndiGo or Deccan or Kingfisher—both run by Bangalore’s UB Group—fly are easier, often factory-fitted, to work under such conditions.
For the airlines, winter season is both a blessing and a curse. With so many people flying for the holidays, they are able to charge real money for their tickets in an industry that has bled really deep the entire year. But every fog day, with cancelled flights, the added costs of just trying to keep up with the cascading effects, and now the government mandated costs of feeding the frustrated passengers, can often wipe out any gains.
“For every hour of delay, there is an additional cost burden of Rs1.50 lakh. At present, (airplanes) are flying 10% extra owing to delays. Now the main cause of the delay is fog,” said a senior aviation executive, who declined himself or his airline to be named.
Air India has taken a complicated insurance policy against losses emanating from fog-related delays, according to its spokesman, who declined further detail.
And, for passengers flying from or to Delhi, the airport has advice: before you leave your homes, head to the airport website (www.newdelhiairport.in) or check timings with your airline. Unless you want to spend hours at the airport with hundreds of other stranded passengers in crowded airports.