Over the course of two days in mid-January this year, the sumptuous confines of Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt hotel played host to the inaugural Global Aviation Summit.
With more than 1,000 delegates descending upon India’s financial hub – including CEOs of airports and airlines, as well as regulators and transport ministers from 35 countries – the event was billed as a platform to unite the “global aviation fraternity”, under the “Flying for All” strapline.
While the plenary may have been international in its vision, it also provided its host nation with the opportunity to show off its stripes as one of the fastest growing aviation markets in the world. Indeed, the event was organised by the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Airports Authority of India, in collaboration with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry.
One of the key talking points of the summit was the unveiling of an ambitious new roadmap, devised by the civil aviation ministry, which sets out how India will deal with growth expectations for a domestic industry that is reported to have developed at 20% annually for the last four years.
According to the Vision 2040 document, India’s air passenger traffic is forecast to hit 1.1 billion by 2040 – six times its current number. The solution is to build more airports, with between 190 and 200 hubs pencilled in the pipeline for the next 20 years. If such plans are realised, India’s top 31 cities will house two airports each – Delhi and Mumbai, potentially three.
Despite being the world’s fastest growing economy – by the World Bank’s estimates – India has long sought to boost infrastructure development, which is laggardly compared to that of its rival and neighbour China. Beijing itself announced in December plans to build 216 new airports by 2035 to meet booming domestic air passenger market growth.
How the aviation industry plays into Modi’s global vision
Thus, India’s renewed aviation ambitions might well be seen as a deceleration of intent, as tied to Prime Minister Modi’s overarching goal to position the nation as both a regional and global power.
Presently, India is the world’s seventh biggest aviation market, with 187 million passengers taking to the skies in 2017-18. Within the next five years, it is expected to become the third largest, behind only China and the US. This rise in numbers shares a direct correlation with the emergence of the country’s rising affluence and middle class.
According to the aforementioned document, the construction of India’s new airports will require a capital investment in the region of $40-50bn, excluding land acquisition costs. Central government is said to be weighing up the establishment of a new fund, with a starting corpus of $2bn, to support low-traffic airport in the initial stages of expansion.
Mumbai is scheduled to be one of the first cities to garner the privilege of having a new hub, with the first phase of Navi Mumbai International Airport set to be operational by mid-2020, as announced in January by Devendra Fadnavis, chief minister of the state of Maharashtra.
As India goes about building new airports, so it is also looking to become increasing self-sufficient in terms of aircraft-building (as part of Modi’s “Made in India” initiative). The country’s fleet of commercial aircraft – which stood at 622 in March 2018 – is projected to reach 2,359 by March 2040.
Are India’s airport plans grounded in reality?
Never has India set out its stall clearer when it comes to its aviation market, but are its aims entirely achievable?
Speaking at a roundtable at the summit, Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the International Air Transport Association, suggested the construction of a new airport in Mumbai within five years would be a tough undertaking.
Others have been more openly disparaging on whether Indian airports will be able to meet the surge in demand. As Indian aviation expert Neelam Matthews recently told the Washington Post: “All this talk of India as the third-largest aviation market may not happen, because the infrastructure may not be able to come up.”
Then there’s India’s mixed track record to consider when it comes to previous aviation promises. Back in 2017, Modi unveiled the Regional Connectivity Scheme, aimed at connecting smaller towns in the country to its aviation network through subsided new routes.
While this included a pledge to create a new $17bn bullet train service, as well as 53,000 miles of new roads, ambitions set out for the aviation sector have not been delivered upon. Despite having won a combined 84 of the 128 contracts offered in the initial phase of Modi’s connectivity scheme, local carriers Air Deccan and Air Odisha were forced to cancel half of their flights back in September, according to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
In that same month amidst much fanfare, Modi cut the ribbon at a new airport in the industrial town of Jharsuguda. Within two weeks, due to internal problems at Air Odisha, flights to and from the hub were cancelled.
Various problems have also beset the country’s existing airports, with Mumbai Airport – the country’s biggest – reporting delays for one in four of domestic flights in September due a to shortage of landing slots.
Such incidents do little to clear the long-hanging air of scepticism around India’s ambitions as an aviation behemoth. But the enormous size of its air passenger traffic is indisputable, meaning the country needs to deliver on its promise to not only build more airports – but make sure they are operationally efficient.