(Hindustan Times)
(Hindustan Times)

Big jam in the sky: Mumbai’s airport mess

  • India’s second-largest airport is under severe stress, and air travellers are unhappy. What’s the way out?
  • Passengers flying to and from Mumbai airport are faced with all-time high airfares, frequent flight delays and cancellations  

Mumbai: The skies over India’s financial capital are facing an unprecedented jam. Not something that those flying to and from the thriving metropolis flanking the Arabian Sea are unused to but with almost a quarter of flights from Mumbai cancelled every alternate day through March, travellers and airlines are in a tizzy.

Airport authorities are scrambling to squeeze in as many flights as possible while fares have soared, upsetting passengers during the ongoing peak domestic winter schedule. Adding to the woes, opening of the first phase of a new airport in Navi Mumbai is expected to be delayed by a few years.

On a normal day, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSIA) handles as many as 940 flights with its two runways in full stream. The airport, however, can operate only one runway at a time as these are two crossing runways.

With both shut for six hours every alternate day from 7 February to 30 March for maintenance, there will be about 230 fewer flights every alternate day during the closure period. The maintenance work at the Mumbai airport will be carried out at the intersection of the runways, forcing the closure of both runways.

The passengers

The ride to India’s second-busiest airport, especially during peak traffic hours, is often as tedious as the journey ahead. After braving traffic congestion on roads, once you finally arrive at CSIA, you are often left staring at a serpentine queue to get through check-in and security procedures.

Flight delays have been the norm rather than the exception in Mumbai with the airport regularly ranking as one of the worst of India’s four metro airports—in terms of one-time performance of flight departures. According to a report from UK-based consultancy OAG, only 60.4% of total departures at the Mumbai airport during December 2018 were on time. During the same period, about 79.2% departures from New Delhi were on time, while the figure was 76.4% and 73.8% for Hyderabad and Bengaluru airports, respectively.

Mumbai-based business travellers, are bearing the brunt of the reduced flights and changes in schedules due to the runway closure that has also led to a spate of flight cancellations and delays. Adding to the woes, both traffic and passenger congestion seem to have compounded during this period where there’s a severe capacity shortage.

“Last week, it took me an hour and half to check in and complete security procedures at the Mumbai airport. Flying from terminal 2 is a nightmarish experience, especially during peak hours," said Mumbai-based Mohit Gulati, managing partner and chief investment officer at ITI Growth Opportunities Fund, who travels frequently to New Delhi.

Gulati said he now keeps a few hours as buffer to travel to Delhi as it’s not possible anymore to take even a 7.30am flight from Mumbai to make it in time for a meeting at 11am in the capital. “Now a days, I have been taking flights to Delhi from Pune, instead of Mumbai, as the airport there is better managed," added Gulati, who last week went to the Mumbai airport only to find out that his IndiGo flight has been cancelled.

The airfares

A Bengaluru-based software professional, who works for one of India’s largest software services companies, and frequently travels to Mumbai, said apart from the inconvenience and long passenger queues at the airport, airfares have risen tremendously due to the runway closure which has significantly reduced the total capacity of flights taking off and landing at the CSIA.

The person, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said return fares in the Bengaluru-Mumbai sector, which were usually in the range of 6,000-10,000 have risen to as much as 15,000-16,000. To be sure, the partial closure of the airport in Bengaluru from 14 to 24 February due to the Aero India Show 2019 also compounded the problem.

“It’s painful to travel to Mumbai," the person, who travelled to the city last week, said adding that the crumbling infrastructure in the city is adding to the woes. “It takes a woefully long time to reach South Mumbai from the airport during peak hours. Also, boarding a flight from the time you reach the airport can also take a few hours with long queues for check-in and security. Also, if you are flying in the morning or late night, several of the airline check-in counters tend to be empty which leads to further delays," the person said.

Meanwhile, domestic airfares to and from Mumbai are at their all-time high due to the closure of runways.

“With the Mumbai airport being shut for six hours thrice a week because of runaway repair work, there has been a lot of cancellation and rescheduling of flights leading to a reduction in capacity by approximately 15-20% on these days," said Sharat Dhall, chief operating officer at online travel portal Yatra Online Pvt. Ltd.

Fares, especially between Mumbai and Delhi, and other trunk routes from the city, have already risen significantly ahead of the closure. Dhall said fares between Mumbai and Delhi are more than 30% higher during the days when the runways would be closed compared with other days. Also, bookings in the 0-7 day window can have fares that are at least 60-70% higher than the fares during the same period of the previous year.

“We are advising travellers to plan their travel well in advance to avoid paying these extremely high fares," he said adding business and corporate travellers who generally don’t book in advance are taking the brunt of higher airfares.

The airlines

We have already informed the airlines months in advance about the situation and have encouraged them to bring in wide-body aircraft (so that they have enough capacity)," a CSIA spokesperson had told Mint earlier this month.

Flag carrier Air India Ltd has paid heed to the advice and temporarily replaced some of its narrow-body planes to Mumbai with wide-body aircraft, to augment capacity.“It will be difficult to cope with the situation as the runway closure at both Delhi and Mumbai airports comes during the peak winter season," said an Air India official on condition of anonymity as he is not authorized to speak to media. “This is a difficult situation for all airlines as flights will have to be curtailed," the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, IndiGo, India’s largest airline by market share, said it will operate about 30 fewer flights each day for the remainder of the winter schedule as it battles a shortage of pilots. The airline has cancelled several Mumbai-bound or originating flights till the end of the winter schedule on 30 March. The airline, run by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd, has cancelled over 100 flights since 15 February. The 30 flights cancelled by IndiGo comprised 2% of IndiGo’s total flights, it said, adding it expects to resume normal operations with the start of the summer schedule from 31 March.

In a way, IndiGo’s move has further reduced capacity at the Mumbai airport. Its rival Jet Airways (India) Ltd has also adjusted its flight schedule in recent weeks due to issues with some aircraft leasing companies, leading to further rise in airfares.

The future

The airport in Mumbai, also the second-largest in India, handled 48.5 million passengers during 2018, according to data from the Association of Private Airport Operators. In June 2018, the airport set a new record by handling 1,003 flight movements in 24 hours, surpassing its previous record of handling 980 flight movements in a day in February 2018.

In comparison, the Delhi airport, India’s largest in passenger terms, handled 65.7 million passengers in 2018. The airport handles about 1,300 flights daily, a spokesperson of the Delhi International Airport Ltd said. Delhi airport is likely to cross 80 million passengers in fiscal year (FY) 2020, which would see it approach or even overtake London Heathrow in traffic volumes.

Mumbai is, meanwhile, expected to cross the 52 million passenger mark in FY20.

Buoyed by high traffic growth at major airports, including the ones in Mumbai and New Delhi, India is set to become the third largest aviation market by FY20. By then, passenger traffic at Indian airports is expected to increase to 421 million from 264.99 million in 2016-17, according to data from Airports Authority of India (AAI).

India’s domestic air traffic is expected to grow 18-20% and touch 150 million in the year ending March 2019, according to Capa India, an industry consultancy. The consultancy reduced the forecast by at least 2 percentage points considering capacity constraints at large airports like Mumbai and Chennai.

A 2018 report on airports by Capa India estimates that the country’s biggest hubs are already operating at 70% of capacity, with New Delhi and Mumbai at more than 80%. “Passenger numbers are likely to exceed capacity by FY22," the report said.

While the country is set to buy more than 1,000 new aircraft over the next two decades to accommodate the increase in the number of passengers, it may soon run out of space to park them.

An email sent to state-owned airport builder AAI remained unanswered till the time of going to press.

New Delhi-based aviation consultant Mark Martin, who’s the chief executive of Martin Consulting, travels between Delhi-Mumbai several times each quarter. Martin, while used to the long queues at the Mumbai airport, feels that the current Mumbai airport is already working at its optimal capacity and the only solution to the congestion would be the operational launch of the Navi Mumbai airport. “The airport and the runway are already operating at its maximum capabilities and limits. The only solution is the upcoming Navi Mumbai airport," Martin said.

Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL), the company which operates the Mumbai airport, is a joint venture between GVK-led consortium (74%) and the AAI (26%).

A senior official of AAI echoed similar views. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there’s no space to expand the existing airport. “There is hardly any space to make additional terminals or runway at the Mumbai airport," the senior AAI official said adding that the current situation is expected to continue till at least the first phase of the upcoming Navi Mumbai airport is completed.

The government hopes to start the Navi Mumbai airport by 2021-22, minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha said at the Capa India 2019 summit in New Delhi recently. However, with much of the land acquisitions still to be completed the final date for commencement of the first phase of the Navi Mumbai airport is expected much later.

“With significant earthworks to be performed at the site before construction can commence, it is highly unlikely that the second airport will commence operations until FY2023 at the earliest, by which time congestion at the existing airport will become far more severe," according to Capa Global Strategy Report for July-August, 2017.

The Navi Mumbai Airport project will be carried out through a public-private partnership model and the City and Industrial Development Corporation (Cidco), which is the project implementation agency, will incur pre-development work costs. These costs will be later recovered from GVK.

Cidco had earlier said it expected to commission the first phase by December 2019.

In conclusion

Like passengers, pilots too find the Mumbai airport intimidating at times. There’s just too much traffic, while the infrastructure is limited, and we are feeling this now especially with the maintenance work that’s happening there at the moment, said an Air India pilot, who didn’t want to be named.

“There’s a saying which goes—‘Things Go Wrong when you Hurry Up’. At the Mumbai airport, where they are trying to accommodate the maximum number of flights, pilots are often under tremendous pressure. For instance, with such a huge queue of departures (planes), if you don’t initiate push back immediately after being cleared, you stand a chance of being delayed further. So, pilots could try to skip some processes, which could increase the margin of errors," said the Air India pilot.

“And in our profession, the margin of error should be nil," the pilot added.