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Smaller towns and cities, and not metros, are leading the recovery in India’s air passenger traffic, which plunged to record lows after the coronavirus outbreak early last year.

According to data from state-run Airports Authority of India (AAI), which runs most airports in the country, December saw a growing number of tier-II and -III cities contributing a greater share to the overall passenger traffic compared to a year earlier.

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To be sure, domestic passenger traffic had begun declining towards the fag end of December 2019 due to the onset of the pandemic and dropped to zero when flights across India were grounded in March as part of virus containment measures. However, in recent months, smaller cities have witnessed significant uptick in passenger additions. Significantly, while a large number of cities still remain in the negative territory as far as passenger traffic is concerned when compared to a year earlier, the gap is filling up fast for smaller centres as opposed to metros.

Passenger traffic growth for tier-II cities such as Patna, Varanasi, Jammu and Leh continues to be in the negative territory with numbers ranging from single digit to early teens. In striking contrast, the figures for the big metros were in the negative range between 42% to 56% compared to a year earlier.

For smaller centres such as Dibrugarh (6.7%), Lilabari (1.8%), Ozar near Nashik (19.5%), Kangra (34%), Srinagar (27.2%), Prayagraj (17.4%) and Belgaum (5%), passenger traffic growth in December already exceeded the year-ago levels.

Overall, Indian airports saw 15.79 million passengers during December, comprising 14.44 million domestic passengers, and 1.35 million international passengers, down 50.4% from a year earlier. Domestic passengers during the month fell 43% from a year earlier. During April-December 2020, airports saw 64.83 million passengers, down 75% from the year-ago period. During this period, domestic air traffic dropped 61.4% while international air traffic fell 73.8%.

A strong recovery in domestic traffic in tier-II and III cities indicates people are not shying away from necessary travel and meeting family and friends during the pandemic, said a senior official with a Gurugram-based low-fare airline, seeking anonymity. “Traffic at major tier-I cities are registering slower growth probably due to several reasons that include travel curbs put in place by the state governments, and a slowdown in corporate travel. In contrast, some of the smaller towns and cities have registered high growth, which has led to several airlines increasing flights to these places," the official said.

India’s air passenger traffic is expected to rebound in the fiscal year starting April, though it will widely lag the levels seen in FY16, credit rating agency Icra said in a report this month. FY22 will see a robust growth of about 78% in domestic air passenger traffic and about 164% in international air passenger traffic, the report added.

Meanwhile, the domestic air freight market continued its recovery in December. According to latest AAI data, 107,000 tonnes of domestic freight were processed during the month, down just 3% from a year ago despite airlines operating at only 80% of their pre-covid capacity during the period.

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