The civil aviation sector has started to recover with passenger and cargo traffic reaching almost pre-Covid levels. The increased pace of vaccination and the rising demand for air travel, especially from the leisure segment, have contributed significantly to the growth. As per the latest traffic data released by the Airports Authority of India (AAI), the overall passenger traffic in December 2021 stood at 25.12 million, an increase of about 59.1 per cent over the 15.79 million passengers flown in December 2020. During April-December 2021, passenger traffic stood at 131.62 million, about 103 per cent higher than the 64.83 million passengers reported in the corresponding period in the preceding fiscal. Meanwhile, cargo traffic stood at 275,384 tonnes in December 2021, an increase of a meagre 6.94 per cent over the 257,504 tonnes registered in December 2020. During April-December 2021, cargo traffic amounted to 2.37 million tonnes (mt), about 39.47 per cent higher than the 1.7 mt reported in the corresponding period in the preceding fiscal.
Traffic trends at key airports
The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) handled 21 per cent more passengers in 2021 compared to 2020, led by domestic passengers. In 2020, the airport handled a total of 16.3 million passengers, as per the CSMIA. Of the 19.8 million passengers in 2021, the airport catered to approximately 17.4 million domestic passengers across 140,000 flights and over 2.43 million international passengers across 17,290 flights. Domestic passenger traffic accounted for almost 88 per cent of the overall passenger movement from the CSMIA. Cargo traffic at the airport jumped 28 per cent year on year to 0.77 mt in 2021. The CSMIA is expecting cargo traffic to return to 95 per cent of the pre-Covid level in 2022, with a likely 10 per cent volume growth in the export-import (exim) movement during 2022. Domestic and international cargo volumes stood at 0.16 mt and 0.44 mt respectively in 2020.
Cochin International Airport (CIAL) has witnessed robust growth in both air traffic movement and passenger volumes in 2021 compared to 2020. As per data released by the airport, CIAL handled 4,306,661 passengers during 2021 against 3,337,830 during 2020, an increase of almost 1 million passengers. Aircraft movement also grew, from 30,737 in 2020 to 41,437 in 2021.
Tirupati airport has been witnessing increased passenger traffic, aircraft movement and air cargo traffic compared to the previous year. Against 3,202 kg in August 2021, the airport handled 7,876 kg of cargo in the following month, an increase of 145.97 per cent. It further went up to 11,137 kg in October 2021 and to 11,904 kg in November 2021.
In another major development, expansion work on the arrival section of Terminal (T1) of the Delhi airport expansion project has been completed and it is now ready for operation. Once the entire expansion work is complete, the total terminal capacity of the airport and the airside will increase to 100 million and 140 million respectively.
Kolkata airport has recently opened an international courier terminal to facilitate express cargo clearance at the airport. This will enable direct export and import courier operations, which so far had to be routed via Delhi or Mumbai and required an additional two days in transit. The 1,120 sq.m facility is located next to the existing cargo terminal. It has started operations in phases with dedicated customs officers handling courier operations.
On February 8, 2022, authorities at Srinagar airport announced the commencement of cargo operations from a new domestic cargo complex, which was built at a cost of over Rs 140 million. Cargo, with a maximum capacity of 80 mt, can be sent to 11 airports in the country by the six airlines that operate from Srinagar.
According to reports, customs authorities will soon start taking steps for issuing custodianship for express courier cargo service (ECCS) in Tiruchy airport. After issuing the ECCS, any international courier operator wishing to start operations from Tiruchy airport can approach the customs authorities. Even at this stage, international courier operators can approach the customs authorities for starting operations from the airport. Tiruchy airport is already reporting good cargo movement to West Asian countries, Singapore and Malaysia. At present, several courier operators are sending their international courier cargo through Bengaluru or Chennai.
SpiceXpress and the aviation start-up division of Pifore are exploring the launch of zero carbon-emitting electric cargo planes. The project is at a preliminary stage, but an MoU has been signed between the two companies. SpiceXpress is the cargo division of commercial airlines company SpiceJet.
Recently, a parliamentary panel suggested that cargo handling rates be standardised at Indian airports and freighters get dedicated parking bays. Moreover, the resolution of all air cargo tariff disputes must be brought under the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority. There is neither a standard rate for cargo handling across Indian airports nor any regulatory oversight in case of disputes between airlines and customers.
The way forward
AAI’s key focus areas are development of cargo terminals and provision of maintenance, repair and overhaul services. It aims to achieve a cargo handling capacity of about 10 mt by 2026-27. Air cargo can play a major role in boosting the economy and creating employment opportunities. Air cargo throughput is projected to quadruple to 17 mt in fiscal year 2040.
The International Air Transport Association has urged the centre to ensure swift normalisation of international flight operations and called for discontinuation of air travel bubbles. Going forward, there is a huge potential for growth in the civil aviation sector.