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Can India's airports cope with rapid passenger growth?

Murali Krishnan in New Delhi
February 7, 2024

India's aviation sector is poised for impressive and healthy growth in terms of passengers, aircraft and airports. But can its operations and infrastructure expand fast enough to keep up with the demand?

A passenger sips a drink in the food court of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) in Mumbai
India has become the largest purchaser of aircraft in the world after the US and ChinaImage: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images

The airline business is booming in India, where the government has earmarked around $11 billion (€10.22 billion) to build new airports and refurbish existing ones.

The goal is to have about 200 airports across India within five years, up from 150 today.

Rise in demand for air travel

India, with its 1.4 billion people, is home to the world's fastest-growing air passenger market and is poised to become the world's third-largest aviation market after China and the United States.

India's domestic air passenger traffic is expected to double in the next six years, reaching 300 million by the end of 2030, according to the country's Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, who spoke at last month's Wings India summit in the southern city of Hyderabad.

Mumbai Airport
India's aviation infrastructure, including airports, still needs to improve to match rapid passenger growthImage: Picture-alliance/prisma/R. J. Fuste

Industry experts say that the capital, New Delhi, will be ready for 100 million passengers next year as it prepares to become the world's second busiest, behind Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the United States.

The Mumbai-to-New Delhi route is the world's third busiest.

"We are preparing for the potential by creating capacities, removing bottlenecks, simplifying procedures," said Scindia, "so that by 2047, when India achieves her 100th year of independence, this civil aviation sector is able to support not a current $4 trillion economy but a $20 trillion economy."

India has become the world's largest aircraft purchaser after the US and China, with its fleet size set to grow from 713 to upwards of 2,000 over the next decade. In 2023, India's airlines placed orders for 970 aircraft.

In February 2023, Air India ordered 470 aircraft, including from Airbus and Boeing. The country's newest airline, Akasa, due to start international flights this year, is to announce an order for about 150 Boeing 737 MAX narrowbody planes.

Industry expert Kapil Kaul, who has been chronicling the buildup, said India is the aviation market of the 21st century that will certainly see continuous and long-term growth.

"Up to 2032, India has the airport infrastructure ahead of demand. The national capital region and Mumbai metropolitan have long-term infrastructure in place, but for the rest of the country, we need to plan for airport infrastructure beyond 2032," Kaul, CEO and director of the Australia-based CAPA Center for Aviation, told DW.

"The current capital expenditure for airport infrastructure is closer to $11 billion to support this growth. We have orders for 1,600 aircraft, and more is expected by the end of 2025."

Pathways to sustainable aviation

However, Kaul pointed out that India must also significantly strengthen safety, security, skills, airspace architecture and institutional infrastructure to ensure this growth is well managed.

The industry is still dogged by minor problems, such as wintertime flight delays and cancellations when dense fog affects operations.

Regulatory enforcement also needs strengthening.

Unlocking potential for Indian aviation

"Fog-inflicted problems in Delhi basically revolve around a lack of coordination and sometimes there are operational constraints as well as runway issues. But make no mistake that the aviation industry is in major growth mode," Jitender Bhargava, former executive director of Air India, told DW. 

"These minor glitches happen across the world. Weather issues are not always under the control of airlines and airport authorities. When it happens in Europe, there is no backlash," Bhargava said. "However, potential growth in India is going to make it a very exciting market."

Two years ago, the Airports Authority of India, which manages much of the civil aviation infrastructure, said air traffic services need 40% more staff to boost its current strength of 3,163 personnel.

Already the third-biggest domestic aviation market by volume, India is projected to be the third-largest overall by 2026, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an industry body.

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IATA also pointed out that the airline sector returned to profitability, with operating profit expected to touch $49.3 billion in 2024 — up from $40.7 billion last year.

Analysts say the industry underwent a significant shift from 2013-14 onwards, marked by reforms such as removing price caps, fostering competitive dynamics and more affordable flying options.

Around 250,000 people were directly employed in India's aviation and aeronautical manufacturing sector last year, according to data from the Civil Aviation Ministry. This number is expected to grow to 350,000 by the end of this year.

Arjun Subramaniam, a former air vice marshal with the Indian Air Force, told DW that as India expands its civil aviation ecosystem, better utilization of its airstrips for dual use would be ideal in the coming years.

"It will only add to the country's strategic heft, especially in smaller cities. What's more, there is also a need to upgrade civil aviation academies and flying schools so pilots can train here instead of going abroad." 

Edited by: Keith Walker

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11