The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has been taking remarkable initiatives during the Covid-19 pandemic to ensure that medical supplies reach all parts of the country. Besides, the authority has been doing fairly well in terms of adopting new technologies, encouraging private participation in the airport sector and achieving self-reliance. At the recently held National PSU Virtual Summit 2020, Arvind Singh talked about how Indian airports are dealing with the pandemic and the technology ugradations that have been undertaken to facilitate smoother operations. Excerpts…
What are the key strategies to mitigate the impact of the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic?
While others are working from home, AAI’s senior management has been working from the office. Our staff working at airports, especially at air traffic control towers, has been working on the ground at the forefront of this war against Covid-19. All flight operations were shut in March 2020, and the challenge before us was to ensure that essential medical supplies reached different parts of the country, especially when the interstate movement of vehicles by road was stopped on account of the lockdown. At this time, the airport sector started buzzing and a number of cargo flights were operated to ensure timely transportation of medical supplies and equipment to far-flung areas like the Northeast.
Further, on May 6, 2020, repatriation flights started under the Vande Bharat Mission. This was another challenge, given the extent of the virus outbreak in different parts of the world and the need to ensure passenger safety with strict state quarantine guidelines. I think that we have been successful in meeting this challenge as well. Beginning May 25, 2020, domestic flights opened up and now international flights too are beginning to operate in international “air bubbles”, while the repatriation flights have already been taking place. On May 25, 2020, only about 30,000 passengers travelled on about 250 flights. Compared to this, more than 1,000 flights were operated on September 3, 2020, carrying almost 100,000 passengers. We expect this growth trajectory to continue at least for the next few months to ensure normalcy. Although we are still not at pre-Covid levels, I am sure that once passenger confidence builds up, we will reach normalcy sometime later this year.
Where does AAI stand in comparison to other countries in terms of technology adoption?
Technology adoption has been fast paced at Indian airports. In the Covid-19 scenario, contactless technologies have already become a new normal at all airports across the country. About 10 years ago, all the airports were under the ownership of AAI and we had a monopoly till 2006. Then we witnessed privatisation of airports, beginning with the Delhi and Mumbai airports. Eventually, the Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Kochi and Kannur private airports came up. These modern airports witnessed rapid technology adoption with humongous investments. We are not only planning to add almost 100 new airports in the next five years with heavy investments by the government, but we are also focusing on privatisation, with greenfield airports coming up in the private sector. Recently, we privatised six airports, while consultations are going on for another round of privatisation of at least six more airports. With this, established foreign players will come and operate airports in India, and this will further boost technology adoption in the country.
What are the key challenges being faced by AAI in following its roadmap for technology upgradation?
Any area of technological upgradation has its own challenges. Apart from the conventional hardware- and software-related challenges, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up additional challenges in technological upgradation. We are trying to implement facial recognition software at some of the airports to ensure seamless and contactless check-in. While we had the plan in place and implementation was about to begin, the Covid-19 outbreak occurred. As a result, the hardware that we were expecting from abroad was delayed, leading to delays in overall project implementation.
A number of technologies are being changed at airports abroad as well as at some Indian private sector airports in large metropolitan cities. Air passengers have a high degree of expectation from airports in terms of adoption of modern technological tools. Thus, it is a constant quest for improvement and change. We have good airport management technologies and airport operations and command centres have opened up. DigiYatra has been launched to facilitate seamless passenger movement without having to do any paperwork at touchpoints in airports. In Covid times, we have also shifted to e-office, with a very limited need for physical files and paperwork. Besides, we are conducting meetings virtually, in place of physical meetings that were the norm earlier. Going forward, as times change and the new normal settles, we will eventually adapt to the new challenges.
What are the expected timelines for the adoption of DigiYatra by all airports in the country?
Currently, the concept of DigiYatra is being implemented at a few big private airports, with the Bengaluru and Hyderabad airports attempting it. Our pilot project is being rolled out at four airports – Varanasi, Kolkata, Pune and Vijayawada. We expect the implementation to be completed at different locations in the next six-eight months. After the roll-out at these four locations, we will take a call on how fast and easily we can roll it out at other airports in the country. The next financial year should see the roll-out happening at a quicker pace.
Do you think start-ups are being given the needed push in the airport sector?
We have been one of the pioneers among public sector undertakings, having released a policy for start-ups in 2018. We have already identified a few start-ups and are in the process of hand-holding them and giving them the necessary financial support. Despite some initial glitches and delays, we can hope to see four to five good start-ups operating in the airport space by next year. Besides, Invest India has been guiding us in the area of providing the necessary coaching to these start-ups.
In light of the government’s Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative, what will be your key priority areas?
We have been exhausting a lot of foreign exchange on procuring equipment for air navigation from abroad. Currently, there is a dearth of domestic producers for such equipment, owing to the small market size. Here, the MoU that we have signed with Bharat Electronics Limited comes in handy, as the company has the potential to manufacture such specialised equipment and lead us towards self-reliance. Similarly, the maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) market in India is not well developed, thus increasing the dependence on foreign players for such services. While we have already granted tax concessions to the MRO industry, we are in talks with the ministry to see if we can identify some space at airports or provide land at concessional rates so that more MRO companies are attracted to India. Apart from this, flying schools in the country have become highly unviable. In this regard, we have set up a committee to look for not-so-busy airports where land and other facilities can be made available at attractive rates to attract some good flying schools, so that our pilots do not have to be trained abroad.
What importance does the year 2020 hold in AAI’s Vision 2026? What will be your key focus areas as part of the vision?
The year 2020 gives us the time to take a step back, pause and reflect. Last year, AAI had been in a frenetic state of activity – a cash-surplus and profit-making organisation, paying dividends and digging into a large number of projects. However, the sudden outbreak of Covid-19 has made us hit the pause button, reorganise ourselves, reprioritise our finances and explore new funding avenues. Once our finances and air traffic get normalised, we are sure that our projects will be executed in a much better and more focused manner.
In the area of technology upgradation, we have no option but to adopt new technologies. As per predictions, once traffic figures reach pre-Covid levels, we will be the third largest aviation market in the world by 2030, after the US and China. Hence, there will a large number of passengers and a large number of airports and aircraft operating in the country. Managing all this will require advanced technologies and thus the sector will have to become more technology intensive.
Air navigation is a key focus area for us, owing to the huge size of the Indian airspace. We are lucky to have a highly efficient air navigation system and in order to achieve AAI’s Vision 2026, a lot of technological upgradation is set to happen in this area. Recently, we have signed an MoU with Bharat Electronics Limited, a leading service provider in the defence industry, to help us in the process of modernisation. Following the MoU, an action plan is being finalised by AAI, and this will be in the public domain soon.
We are also in talks with the Indian Air Force and defence authorities for efficient airspace utilisation by way of using it flexibly. We are also working towards reducing the cost of travel, ensuring fuel saving, utilising resources optimally, reducing airborne traffic congestion through air traffic flow management, ensuring efficient runway utilisation through regulated departure sequencing, and ensuring safety of the skies with modern ATMS automation systems and ground aids at airports, including the CAD systems and other innovative landing systems. We are also using satellites to develop space-based ADSB tools to ensure safety and efficiency.