New Delhi: Shortage of slots at the congested Mumbai airport has affected the government’s efforts to increase connectivity to towns in Gujarat and drought-hit Maharashtra, highlighting a key infrastructure gap in the world’s fastest growing major economy.

Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the aviation ministry to improve connectivity to small towns. The ministry has been working on an aviation policy that incentivises airlines that ply these routes.

The real problem, though, might lie elsewhere.

“There was a Jet Airways flight from Bhavnagar to Mumbai. The flight has stopped; there are slot issues at the Mumbai airport," said Member of Parliament from Gujarat Bharati Dhirubhai Shiyal. “We met the Prime Minister and he has assured us that Air India will start flights."

Air India itself has been quick to follow up and has written to the Mumbai airport.

The slots, however, have not been granted.

“Had applied to Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL) for obtaining slot approvals for Mumbai-Bhavnagar-Mumbai sector with ATR-72-600 aircraft effective 21st April 2016 but the request has not been acceded to by MIAL," the airline’s chairman and managing director Ashwani Lohani wrote in a 7 April letter to the civil aviation ministry that was reviewed by Mint.

Air India wants to connect Mumbai with Bhavnagar, Surat, Bhuj and Diu, with direct flights, according to the letter. Air India has also requested slots to connect smaller cities around Mumbai.

Lohani asked the ministry to intervene in the matter.

“We request you to kindly intervene in the matter and take up the issue with MIAL for early grant of slots... for the proposed new flights and increase in frequency of the existing flights, for which the schedule of operations is attached herewith," he added.

An Air India spokesman said it was in talks with the airport for slots.

Meanwhile, a Mumbai airport official said the airport was trying its best. “We have only one runway and we can not do anything about land constraints. We have worked to increase ramp capacity as also constructed rapid exit taxiways for aircraft to exit quickly. The runway capacity has been enhanced from 30 per hour in 2007 to 45 now. We are trying very hard to do our best to increase capacity even further," a Mumbai airport official, who did not wish to be named, said.

Work on Mumbai’s much delayed second airport will start later this year.

New airline Vistara has also complained that its expansion plans have been hit by the lack of slots in Mumbai airport.

Air India, Jet Airways, SpiceJet and the erstwhile Kingfisher Airlines have traditionally had the largest network of regional cities connected on its network.

The shutting down of Kingfisher led to connectivity to several stations being hit.

The loss of Kingfisher has been made up by airlines such as Air Costa, Air Pegasus and Trujet which provide the much-needed regional connectivity, mostly in the southern region, according to a report by the aviation ministry, industry lobby FICCI and KPMG.

The report said that state governments need to take the initiative in the field of development of low-cost airports to boost regional connectivity.

“The next generation of aviation growth in India is being triggered by regional airports. At present, there are about 450 used/un-used/abandoned airports and airstrips spread all over the country. About 225 of them are owned by state governments or by private operators," the report said, “Efforts must be undertaken to activate these airports, subject to their long term financial viability."

That could pose a challenge. Small aircraft are exempt from paying parking charges.

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