As someone closely watching and writing about India’s aviation industry for over two decades, I have said in my previous columns that I did not expect two developments to see the light of day before I retired. But the forces that be seem intent on proving me wrong in both cases.
One, I never thought any Indian government would sell the national carrier Air India to a private player. There are too many vested interests for any government to allow this. However, I was proven wrong as the airline was sold in October 2021 to Tata Sons, lock, stock and barrel.
Second, there were talks of a second airport coming up in Mumbai since I began writing on this sector, an idea first conceived in 1997. Over the years, the Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA) became like a phantom or a spectre. Its imminent arrival was awaited almost with dread: now you see me, now you don’t, now you see me, now you don’t. Many in the sector had resigned themselves to the latter.
Come 2024, that is going to change as well. After some typical Indian-style corporate skullduggery and a new concessionaire in place, construction at this site began in August 2023. Towards the end of October 2023, I made a trip to the site to find it is not only coming up but is in some kind of breathless race towards completion by December 2024 (after the 2024 general elections). It is perhaps in close competition with Jewar in Uttar Pradesh. Close to 8,000 workers are on the job at the site.
The runway we took a drive on seemed almost ready to my inexpert eyes and the first terminal building seemed at least 30% done. Readers and sceptics in the sector might find this hard to swallow but on enquiry with the Adani Airport Holdings Limited (AAHL) team — 250 of whom arrive at the site daily to monitor progress — one learnt that the project was 42% complete on the day of visit.
Air Congestion In Mumbai Was Costing Money
Readers need to appreciate why this hasn’t happened a day too soon. India’s aviation industry and by extension the Indian economy have paid an incalculable price in the last 15 years or at least since the low-fare airline revolution hit us in its full glory for the lack of adequate infrastructure in the financial capital of the nation.
The private watchdog and sector consultancy Center for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) estimates that the country has lost more than US $100 per minute on account of severe congestion at the existing Mumbai airport although it couldn’t offer more precise data. A former Jet management official recalled how way back in 2005-2006, the private airline had even begun to levy a congestion surcharge after it estimated that it was losing US $6 million every quarter on account of this.
Almost since 2005, airlines have been consistently complaining of the extra costs they have had to bear due to the congestion delays in the air. This led to not only extra fuel being burnt by aircraft but also the loss of usage time available on each aircraft on a given day. Airlines have been forced to carry extra fuel to meet the requirement of the additional flying minutes while they hover to land or await clearance to take off. Moreover, Delhi and Mumbai together account for a majority of air traffic in the country so any delays in these sectors have a cascading effect on other routes in the network, all of which pushes up the costs of operations.
Congestion — both on the ground and in the air — has worsened as traffic has grown although air traffic control and Mumbai International Airport Limited (MIAL) authorities have consistently brought in as much efficiency as possible. Readers will also recall how the Jet Airways shutdown in 2019 led to a mad rush between the incumbent players to corner Mumbai slots — both take-off slots and parking bays.
With space remaining a massive constraint, by the time low-fare airline Akasa Air — which has its headquarters in Mumbai — started operations in August 2022, there was virtually no space for it to park and the airline picked Bengaluru as its main base. It currently has over 15 aircraft parked overnight in Bengaluru, three in Ahmedabad and only one in Mumbai. This is despite a majority of its pilots being Mumbai-based. Many of them are maintaining a second base in Bengaluru to be available to fly the aircraft out every morning. Inconvenient, inefficient and costly for all concerned.
Two Concerns Remain
As things stand, NMIA being built at a total cost of Rs 19,646 crore in phase 1 will function with one terminal building of over 2 lakh square metres which is expected to be ready by December 2024 (the latest deadline) and will cater to 20 million passengers per annum, one full-length runway with a parallel taxiway with 42 aircraft maintenance and parking stands. Traffic triggers will lead to further construction of terminals — four at full capacity — and an increase in capacity in response to demand with the final handling capacity at 90 million passengers per annum.
The airport will also have a dedicated general aviation terminal and one exclusive cargo terminal although the terminals will be constructed in five phases and will generate its own solar power, almost a prerequisite now with large infrastructure projects across the country.
Two concerns about its readiness and completion remain. One is the most critical factor for all greenfield airports globally — access. Will passengers be able to reach the NMIA easily from all directions given Mumbai’s numerous traffic snarls and choke points and its never-ending road and highway development projects? Will, for instance, the Mumbai TransHarbour Link, which is expected to be a game changer for access, be fully ready? Or will the more exciting, albeit more expensive, option of taking a ferry from Radio Club or the Colaba jetty to reach the Nerul/Belapur Jetty, and then continuing to the airport via a shuttle bus or taxi in approximately 50 minutes, become a reality?
The second is whether the AAHL, the concessionaire building the facility and which already has its plate full with MIAL and a clutch of smaller airports around the country and no real experience in the space, manage to pull it off? The jury is out on both matters in the sector.
All things considered, it would not be an overstatement to say that India’s aviation sector and airlines and the country as a whole have paid a very high price for the failure of successive Indian governments to build a much-needed second airport in the city. And if NMIA is not up and running exactly by its highly ambitious December 2024 deadline, I’m not quibbling. The very fact that it's happening at all seems akin to a miracle to me.