How to turn Indian airports into South Asian travel hubs

Dubai International Airport handles 60-65 million passengers a year (Photo: Reuters)
Dubai International Airport handles 60-65 million passengers a year (Photo: Reuters)

Summary

  • The aviation policy must examine popular global hubs such as Singapore, Dubai, London and New York, and replicate those conditions in Delhi, Mumbai and other large Indian cities

India is looking to reframe its national aviation policy to turn its airports into South Asian travel hubs, news reports indicate. This is a progressive idea and should be win-win if done correctly. Such a policy requires coordination between the Ministry of Home Affairs, which handles matters of security and immigration, the Civil Aviation Ministry, and the Ministry of External Affairs on international flying rights and creating the required infrastructure.

Around 20 million Indians will travel abroad this year. Many of them will use hub airports in Singapore, Dubai, Qatar, Istanbul, London, Paris and Frankfurt even though their destination may be elsewhere. Most successful international airlines “hub" out of their headquarters – if you fly Finnair from Delhi to New York, for example, you first go to Helsinki (the Finnair hub) and take a connecting flight to NY. If you use Emirates, you fly to Dubai first.

It is estimated Indians will spend the equivalent of $42 billion on foreign travel in 2024. A large proportion of that will be on airline tickets. Some of the money will also be spent at duty-free shops in overseas hubs. If the airports of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru or Kolkata were hubs, some of that money would be spent within India. Moreover, travellers from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, could choose to route trips through India.

To make this happen, the aviation policy must examine popular hubs and replicate those conditions in Delhi, Mumbai and other large Indian cities. One factor is favourable geography. India already has that, since it is situated conveniently for travel to East Asia, the Middle East, East Africa and Europe.

Other factors are value for money and the quality of airline services. News reports cite Indigo, Air India (and Vistara, which is also managed by the Tatas) as potential candidates. They need to offer seamless connectivity, with smartly timed flights, to as many high-volume destinations as possible. They also need fleets with sufficient capacity. This is happening. India’s airlines have a large number of wide-body, long-haul aircraft on order. But improving connectivity will require complex negotiations as the government is involved in granting international flying rights.

You also need large airports with large terminals. These already exist. Delhi’s IGIA, Mumbai’s CSMIA, and the airports in Kolkata, Bengaluru and Hyderabad are world-class. More such airports are being built and upgraded. 

Airports must invest in equipment that makes it possible to fly despite poor visibility and inclement weather. Every winter there are long delays in flight across north India owing to smog, for example. More hangars and increased fuelling capacity are also required.

Cutting the duty on aviation turbine fuel (ATF) may be a policy consideration. ATF accounts for nearly 40% of the operational costs of Indian airlines. Competitors such as Emirates and Etihad have an inbuilt advantage on cheap fuel.

Delhi is already among the world’s 10 busiest airports, with the capacity to handle 62 million passengers a year, and the intention is to increase this to 100 million. (Dubai and Chicago handle 60-65 million passengers each). There’s space to offer world-class shopping experiences, luxurious lounges, gourmet restaurants and bars at most modern Indian airports.

You also need excellent connectivity between airports and city centres, and between terminals. A passenger should be able to hop onto the metro with luggage and travel to the city centre with ease. Passengers should also be able to move easily between terminals without having to step outside. Ideally, terminals should be connected by train shuttles. India is building metros rapidly, but this is a pain point at the moment. You can get to Delhi’s Terminal 3 by the metro, but transfers to Terminal 1 and 2 are done by bus. Physical infrastructure needs beefing up.

Other bottlenecks that irritate travellers include long queues, paperwork and other red tape. Security and immigration procedures should be streamlined to ensure passengers need not pass multiple checks or submit too many forms. Indian airports are notorious for having long queues and multiple security checks for those switching from domestic to international flights.

The immigration system is also slow and short of manpower. Any seasoned international traveller is used to seeing closed counters and long queues at immigration. These processes need to be improved. Transit visas and e-visa processes must also be smooth and seamless.

None of this is impossible if there’s the will to do it and the necessary coordination between concerned ministries. The payoff would be huge. If Indian airports do turn into travel hubs, the government could look to persuade aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing, Airbus Embraer to set up repair and maintenance centres in India. This could turn India into a repair and maintenance hub servicing the entire region.

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