Indian non-metro cities are potential sources of demand: Abu Dhabi airport

  • India accounts for 21% of the total international traffic witnessed to and from Abu Dhabi international airport, also known as Zayed International Airport.

Anu Sharma
First Published5 Apr 2024
Zayed International Airport managing director and chief executive officer Elena Sorlini.
Zayed International Airport managing director and chief executive officer Elena Sorlini.

New Delhi: The growing air travel sentiment in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities is catching the attention of major aviation hubs. UAE-based Abu Dhabi international airport is among such hubs which see potential for demand in the non-metro cities of India and expects a sustained momentum in air traffic for the years ahead.

“I think it's the fastest growing market out of all the geographies," the airport’s managing director and chief executive officer Elena Sorlini told Mint in an exclusive interaction. Secondary markets (non-metro cities) are rapidly becoming a very important market size-wise for the growth that these cities are experiencing and these airports are experiencing. "In order to allow us to use our infrastructure more efficiently, we are in talks with airlines to serve those secondary markets. Hopefully, we are going to have some announcements very soon,” she said. 

India accounts for 21% of the total international traffic to and from Abu Dhabi international airport, officially known as Zayed International Airport. This is the primary international airport serving Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

The total traffic between India and Abu Dhabi has jumped to 4.8 million passengers for 2023, a growth of more than 26% since the pre-pandemic year of 2019 when the total passenger traffic stood at 3.8 million passengers.

Abu Dhabi is connected with 15 cities in India—Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Kochi, Mangaluru, Ahmedabad, Tiruchirappalli, Thiruvananthapuram, Kannur, Kozhikode, Goa, and Lucknow—as per the data for October-December from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.

The airport, which was earlier 80% connected by Etihad airline, has now opted for a more diversified model under which it is encouraging more foreign airlines to launch flights to Abu Dhabi. In case of India as well, while Etihad’s total passenger traffic to and from India in October-December is still 26% lower than the pre-pandemic level of 483,033 passengers, the total traffic for the quarter between the two destinations is 9.5% higher at 1.1 million passengers as compared to October-December 2019.

“As of now, we are growing at a pace of about 37-38% year-to-date, specifically on other Indian carriers. There's a lot of space for them to grow. So, we are looking forward to that,” Sorlini said.

The airport is currently connected by airlines such as Etihad, Air Arabia, Air India, Air India Express, Vistara, and IndiGo. In addition, unlike Dubai, Abu Dhabi has seats available under bilateral air service agreements and so there is scope for capacity expansion. For example, Etihad still has scope to use about 10,000 of its weekly entitlement of 50,000 seats from Abu Dhabi to India. A bilateral air service agreement limits the number of seats airlines can deploy to a destination.

“We expect to reach 5.2 million passengers in 2024 for India and Abu Dhabi air market,” she added.

Abu Dhabi airport, a hub of Etihad Airways, Wizz Air Abu Dhabi and Air Arabia Abu Dhabi, has also recently inaugurated its new Terminal A with a capacity to handle up to 45 million passengers annually. The airport saw 22.5 million passengers in 2023 and aims to reach 27 million this year with a broader growth of under 30% per year.

As the Indian government has also formulated a plan to build hubs in India, Sorlini said that there are two ingredients in the form of correct infrastructure and a home carrier to make a successful aviation hub. An airport needs to treat passengers as an asset, needs to have modern solutions such as biometrics to ensure seamless transfers, and make the experience for a passenger at an airport as qualitative as possible in order to become a hub, she added.

“We have now about 50% of point-to-point traffic versus transfer traffic," she said. "You need to strike the right balance. You need a home carrier that builds its hub and a network system. So, this is where these airports in India will have to look for a home carrier that can exactly replicate that kind of model. The low-cost carriers are mainly focusing on point to point, so I wouldn't count on them to create a hub.” 

Abu Dhabi, which accounted for 7.5% of the total international passenger traffic of 64 million passengers in 2023, gets the maximum air passenger traffic from Kochi at 18% share, followed by Delhi and Chennai at around 13% each. The luxury spending among Indian travellers continues to be on the rise after covid, Sorlini said, adding that the first class and business class seats on the flights to the airport are always full and there has been a growth in spend on luxury items and duty-free products by Indian travellers.

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