Over the past three decades, the Indian aviation industry has undergone a transformation, with a significant focus on modernising and expanding its airports. This evolution has been shaped by various trends, policy changes, technological advancements and the pursuit of excellence. As we delve into the progress made, the challenges faced, and the vision for the future, it becomes evident that India’s airport sector is poised for continued growth and innovation.
A journey of evolution
The past quarter-century has witnessed a dynamic shift in India’s airports. Evolving from basic infrastructure to state-of-the-art facilities, the country’s airports have undergone a remarkable makeover. An early, significant milestone was the opening of Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi in 2010, setting new standards for passenger experience and operational efficiency.
The transformation of airports has been driven by increasing air travel demand, the evolution of air passengers and their requirements, growing urbanisation, and the need to accommodate larger aircraft. Airports like those in Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad have all expanded their capacities and facilities to cater to the surge in passenger traffic. The development of new and previously underserved airports in various cities has further bolstered air connectivity in different parts of the country.
For the better part of the past 25 years, especially from 2004 to 2019, airport infrastructure has primarily been in a catch-up mode, as robust air traffic demand frequently exceeded supply. Notwithstanding the substantial improvements, the demand-supply mismatch has led to delays and congestion at all touchpoints, including approach roads, within terminals and on the airside, thereby compromising customer experience and significantly increasing costs for the entire system.
Key trends shaping the sector
Several trends have played a pivotal role in shaping India’s airport sector. One fundamental trend has been the evolution of airports themselves. Airports are no longer just transit points; they are now designed to provide a superior and enjoyable experience to travellers, offering a mix of shopping, dining, entertainment and relaxation options.
Additionally, the adoption of technology has been instrumental in enhancing operational efficiency and passenger convenience. Self-service kiosks, biometric identification and real-time flight information systems have streamlined processes and reduced wait times. The growing trend towards digitisation will lead to increased customer satisfaction and reduced operational costs.
Major policy moves and their impacts
Government policies have also played a significant role in shaping the trajectory of the airport sector. The introduction of the National Civil Aviation Policy in 2016 was a major milestone aimed at providing a boost to the entire aviation sector. In particular, the policy aimed to enhance regional connectivity and promote the development of underserved and unserved airports. The Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik (UDAN) scheme, launched in 2017, sought to make air travel affordable and accessible to a wider segment of the population. This scheme provides financial incentives to airlines to operate on routes with low passenger traffic, thereby enhancing connectivity in remote and underserved regions.
The ongoing efforts of India’s airport privatisation programme have been remarkably successful and influential beyond our borders. We now have world-class infrastructure in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kochi. Further, a liberal foreign direct investment (FDI) regime has attracted breakthrough investments such as the 100 per cent FDI-funded Jewar airport, which is a major milestone with potential long-term positive impacts for the sector. In addition, the execution of the Jewar airport project, backed by government support, is a noteworthy achievement and showcases how the public-private partnership (PPP) model can work effectively.
Developing hubs and enhancing long-haul connectivity
The government is eager to develop hubs, along with enhancing long-haul and ultra-long-haul connectivity. It is currently developing a strategy paper to ensure that all the necessary elements are in place to create the supporting ecosystem, wherein airports will play an integral role alongside airlines.
Transforming into smart and sustainable airports
The concept of smart and sustainable airports has gained prominence in recent years. Smart airports leverage technology to enhance operational efficiency, improve passenger experience and minimise the environmental impact. A few examples of advancements in this direction are automated baggage handling systems, internet of things (IoT)-enabled facilities management and biometric boarding processes.
Sustainability has also taken centre stage, with airports adopting eco-friendly practices. Solar power installations, energy-efficient designs and water conservation initiatives are being incorporated into airport infrastructure. For instance, Kochi International Airport became the world’s first fully solar-powered airport, setting a benchmark for sustainable aviation practices. Similarly, Bengaluru International Airport has made significant strides in implementing energy efficiency and conservation initiatives, while the upcoming Jewar airport targets to become a net zero airport over time.
Technological and digital solutions
Technological innovations have transformed every aspect of airport operations. Advanced analytics and data-driven insights are used to optimise resource allocation and effectively manage security. Biometric authentication-based DigiYatra has further streamlined security checks, making the process faster, frictionless and more secure. After a successful pilot at three airports, DigiYatra is now available at seven airports and will be implemented at more airports.
Airports are also developing digital solutions to enhance passenger experience, such as mobile apps for real-time updates, wayfinding assistance within terminals and artificial intelligence (AI)-powered chatbots to address passenger queries, ensuring timely and accurate responses.
Airport privatisation experience
A critical contributor to the growth of the sector has been the policy continuity on airport privatisation. The privatisation of airports has played a significant role in the sector’s development. Private operators have been brought in at major airports across the country through PPPs. For instance, the privatisation of Delhi and Mumbai airports has led to an improvement in infrastructure, operational efficiency and passenger services.
The privatisation started with brownfield airports in Delhi and Mumbai under the PPP model in 2006, and by 2019, it further evolved to include six additional airports, along with the successful bidding for India’s first 100 per cent FDI-funded greenfield airport at Jewar.
Economic regulation pertaining to airports has also matured over the years, which is another key enabler of growth.
Unaddressed issues and challenges
Despite the progress, airports in India still face several challenges. Peak-hour congestion remains a concern in major airports, leading to delays and passenger inconvenience. Looking ahead, the future of India’s airports sector holds immense potential. To address the challenges and capitalise on opportunities, the key focus areas should include:
- Airport master plan: A long-term strategic airport master plan should be developed, which aligns with the growth potential of the aviation industry over the next two to three decades. This should include putting in place the right institutional mechanisms to facilitate and oversee the growth of the sector. The plan must eventually result in the development of sufficient airport capacity that exceeds potential traffic demand.
- Regional connectivity: The UDAN scheme should be reviewed to assess its effectiveness and subsequently be expanded, ensuring that even remote areas are well connected by air.
- Sustainability: Airports will need to further prioritise sustainable practices, such as adopting renewable energy sources and minimising waste generation. Net zero emissions must be quickly established and implemented.
- Technology adoption and integration: While technology adoption is under way, it must increase in both pace and scale. Airports store sensitive passenger data, making them potential targets for cyberattacks. Ensuring robust cybersecurity measures is crucial to safeguard both passenger information and airport operations. The further integration of technology such as AI, IoT and data analytics will enhance efficiency, security and passenger experience.
- Skilled workforce: Developing a skilled workforce to manage and operate advanced airport facilities is essential for sustained growth. This will require the upskilling/re-skilling of employees as the nature of their roles evolves with the higher adoption of technology and digital tools.
- Regulatory framework: The regulatory framework must evolve to strike a balance between private sector involvement and the protection of public interest and safety.
In conclusion, India’s airport sector has undergone remarkable progress over the past three decades, driven by industry growth, policy changes and technological advancements. While challenges persist, the industry’s resilience, adaptability and commitment to innovation will pave the way for a future characterised by smart, sustainable and well-connected airports. As India continues its journey towards becoming a large global aviation ecosystem, collaboration between the public and private sectors will play a crucial role in shaping the sector’s successful future.