NEELAM MATHEWS looks at the tremendous challenges faced by the rocketing demands of India’s booming commercial aerospace sector.


Sculpture of hasta mudras (hand gestures) at Terminal 3 of Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, India’s busiest airport.

As India’s domestic aviation grows at a speedy and steady pace, the market having peaked for the 12th time in 13 months this July, it posted a double-digit growth at 18.3%. This upsurge requires a massive increase in airport capacity through a combination of enhanced productivity of existing assets and investment in new infrastructure. The challenge ahead is unprecedented in scale and complexity. Not only has such a task never been attempted in India but, aside from China, no other aviation market in the world is expected to grow so much and so fast. Planning, design and execution will all be critical, fret analysts.

Current airport capacity is presently estimated at 317m. However by March 2018 itself, traffic reached 308.7m. ‘There is concern that India’s airport system could exceed its structural capacity by early 2022, said Sydney-based think tank Center for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA). According to the India Brand Equity Foundation, by 2036 India will have around 480m passengers, greater than Japan and Germany combined. In a report on ‘Future of AAI’ , CAPA recently called for the creation of an Airports Commission of India to assess the efficiency of airport assets and evaluate how to maximise productivity and capacity. Comparing capacity with traffic forecasts will enable the Commission to determine where and when new infrastructure will be required and to take steps to ensure that this is developed before constraints arise, it said. With no entity in India with point-guard responsibility for strategic planning for the Indian airport system, the establishment of an independent Commission will be responsible for preparing a strategic vision for the airport system, supported by a national master plan. The AAI is ‘over-burdened with multiple responsibilities for airport operations, construction and rehabilitation, airspace management, regional connectivity, cargo handling and various other activities,’ it says.

The Government is waking up, albeit too late. Taking cognisance of India’s fading airport infrastructure unable to keep up with the annual growth of domestic aviation, it is finally looking at planning of airports with a long term 15-20 year perspective “instead of a 3-5 year horizon,” said Jayant Sinha Minister of State for Civil Aviation.

Already there is concern that Indian carriers will have a backlog aircraft deliveries of at least 1,000 by 2026. Where they will be parked its already proving to be a pain. With major airports constrained for space, the situation is already restricting capacity growth at Mumbai International Airport which faces issues of expansion as the delayed 20-year Navi Mumbai airport that was to add capacity to India’s commercial capital, limps towards laying a foundation stone. Mumbai International Airport, besides having constrained parking for business jets that has let its service standards fall, also is now known to refuse slots to airlines wanting to start or increase services to it. ‘There is an urgent need for 500 parking bays to be constructed over the next five years, to accommodate planned aircraft inductions. This demand will continue into the future, it will be a continuous and expanding requirement,’ said CAPA. A report by Routesonline, ranked Bengaluru airport as the second fastest growing in the world. This is no longer seen as a feather in one’s cap!

A loser has been the successful Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) that encourages airlines through initiatives and subsidies to connect metro cities to remote and underserved destinations – potentially requiring the revival and upgrade of airport infrastructure or creating new aviation infrastructure in cities having unviable airstrips/airports. Plans are already afoot to move smaller, less lucrative, turboprops out of Delhi and Mumbai airports which were considered the fourth busiest domestic city pairs in the world in 2015 and are now unable to grow. Having handled over 8m passengers, Delhi is already building a fourth runway. Capacity could be expanded with plans to use an interim airport of the Indian Air Force but Mumbai will have to wait. According to CAPA forecasts times, airport capacity will need to be augmented by 6.4 times over the next 15 years to support the projected growth in passenger traffic. 

Demand opportunities

Airbus India market forecast. (Airbus)

Airports Authority of India (AAI) manages 125 airports, 95 of which are operational and 75 with scheduled commercial operations provides air navigation services for over 2.8m² nm of air space.

As demand snowballs and spills over to the to the hinterlands, it is opening diverse opportunities for regional aircraft, helicopters, and seaplanes to interconnect remote, underserved, or unserved airports, towns. and cities leading the government to embark on an ambitious scheme to upgrade airfields and airstrips along with offering incentives to encourage operators to start services to unused airports.

In the next five years, “we will see an investment of about $15bn in the airport sector,” Sinha added. Brave words as India increasingly looks at Public Private Partnership (PPB) Models which are getting increasingly rare primarily due to one major reason. “Our growth is slowing due to availability of land,” confessed Gurprasad Mohapatra, Chairman of AAI to AEROSPACE. As a result, he added, newer business models were being looked at including involving state governments playing a role in airport development that could help propel a project faster.

The need to plan and implement second airport projects in a city is becoming a fast growing trend as growth knows no bounds. This is also likely to encourage airlines to have dual hubs. New greenfield airports at Goa, Delhi, Navi Mumbai, Bhogapuram and Pune are being planned under a PPP model. Airport developers will now compete to win contracts based on the amount of revenue per passenger to be shared with the authority that gives the contract, instead of the present system in which profits are shared from the project. Charges have been capped to around $5 a passenger. “The new model discourages padding up of costs, as the idea is not to develop swanky airports but efficient, functional ones that will help meet the policy objective of one billion passengers a year,” said Civil Aviation Secretary R N Choubey.

Technology shows the way

Indigo aircraft.

The Union Budget 2018, announced the NextGen Airports of Bharat (NABH) Nirman scheme. This scheme aims to establish 100 airports in 15 years, expanding airport capacity by more than five times. CAPA has cautioned that this aspirational initiative of the government which brings a welcome long term perspective to the sector, ‘is a massive and complex undertaking, especially under the present industry framework.’

Technology is all aspects is being woven in, though some feel that it is being done in an unplanned manner. Mohapatra disagrees. He explains that the government initiative ‘Next Gen Airports for India’ is focusing on upgrading technology to enable airports to handle not just terminal constraints but airside, airspace and fast depleting trained skilled staff, including air traffic controllers and mechanics strained in numbers to keep up with congestion in the air.

‘AAI is a highly tech driven company. ….New technologies have been introduced and are being set up at various levels in air navigation services (ANS).’ AAI recently implemented an advanced state of art central-air traffic flow Management (C-ATFM) system, ‘Sky-Flow’ that has started functioning last year. Also referred to as air traffic management, it manages the flow of air traffic based on capacity and demand. “The aim is to use capacity effectively, keeping the average delay as low as possible”, said Mohapatra, while ensuring capacity is not exceeded. “India is one of the few countries to have this. It will benefit airlines by cutting down hovering and fuel costs.” By the end of 2018-end, AAI will cover the whole of India. The Central Command Centre for the ATFM will be ready by October at Delhi,” he added.

Remote towers

As one of the tallest and most visible structures in Mumbai, the 275ft-high air traffic control (ATC) tower makes an iconic statement in the city while serving as the airport’s control centre. (Harvinder Chandigarh)

As air traffic control towers get upgraded simultaneously around the country, AAI is now looking at remote towers to enable to introduce video-based surveillance for ATC services in safety critical environments. The remote tower replaces the visual view of the movement and terminal area of an airport and enables ANS providers to provide air traffic services from a remote location. Mohapatra said an Expression of Interest had been already released to major global companies including Searidge in the UK, Frequentis in Austria, SaaB Technologies in Sweden and Indra NIVIA in Norway. Bids are on their way. ‘In addition, looking at remote towers, for a back-up tower as Changi Singapore did recently. This could be because Delhi’s new Indra-equipped tower built two years ago is said to be facing issues of integration with the older Raytheon tower. Both are presently working, though Mohapatra brushed it with: “It takes time for software to be integrated.” AEROSPACE could not confirm.

Taxi bots

Meanwhile, New Delhi and Mumbai International Airports will soon be operating environmentally-friendly Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) TaxiBot vehicles. TaxiBot is a semi-robotic vehicle that connects to the aircraft and is controlled by the pilot to taxi the airplane from the airport’s jet bridge (‘sleeve’) to the runway without using the aircraft’s jet engines. IAI’s agreement with Delhi-based KSU Aviation includes the first phase of the contract to carry out controlled trials at the airports until the end of 2018. The second phase includes delivery of 38 additional vehicles within four years to the two airports.


A portrait of the great emperor HH Chhatrapati Shivaji at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, Mumbai. (Amit20081980)

AAI set up the SBAS GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation (GAGAN), jointly developed with Raytheon and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) three years ago. The government has mandated GAGAN navigation system to be installed in all aircraft registered in India from 1 January 2019. As an attempt to market the system it, recently, AAI held training for South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and Asia Pacific nations, in the hope that neigbouring countries will use  the technology for aviation, railways, maritime and highways.

Tapping international interest

Interior of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International (Mumbai) Airport

Recognising that capacity needs to be developed through improved efficiency of present resources and investment in new infrastructure, investment is at a premium. Mumbai-based Maharashtra Airport Authority Co. (MADC) responsible for smaller upcoming airports in the state, Marketing Manager of Atul Thakare said at the Farnborough Air Show: “We are here to showcase development of small airports and to look for partners that create a value-add for a new unit we have created to improve regional connectivity from small airports in our state to other states.”

There are immense opportunities for US companies to help with India’s airports modernisation, including artificial intelligence, quality body scanners, skill development and airspace management, said Vikram Mahajan, Director for Aerospace and Defense, US-India Strategic Partnership Forum India.

Under the India-US Aviation Cooperation Program (ACP), a unique bilateral public-private partnership between the US Trade Development Agency (USTDA), the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and US aviation companies, the ACP provides a forum for communication between the Government of India and US public and private sector entities in India. Major initiatives announced by AAI under ACP include an over $700m expansion of Guwahati, Chennai and Lucknow airports in the Northeast, South and Northern India respectively. Projects management contracts for the first two have been given to US-AECOM. The new terminals are expected to be ready by 2021.

ACP ongoing projects at Indian airports include: Aviation Safety Technical Assistance Phase – II, ProVision Body Scanner System Pilot, Aviation Security Equipment Testing & Evaluation Programme, Total Airspace and Airport Modeler, Air Traffic Control Officers Capacity Assessment and a Helicopter Aviation Safety Programme.

Recently, over 250 US and Indian public and private partners participated in the 6th biennial US-India Aviation Summit, where US companies signed around $300m in commercial deals, mainly with AAI. They included Smiths Detection, which won a $50m bid to install and integrate high-speed explosives detection systems for hold-baggage screening at 11 sites across nine airports in India. The first group of machines will be installed in the second half of 2018. L3 Aviation Products has become one of the first avionics manufacturers to set up an MRO facility in India to repair and sustain its avionics equipment for Indian aircraft. Meanwhile Harris Corp. was selected to modernise India’s air traffic management communications infrastructure under a 15-year, $141m contract to serve as the prime contractor and systems integrator for AAI’s Futuristic Telecommunications Infrastructure Initiative.

US companies, have been independently looking at India’s airports’ expansion plans with interest. Recently, Phi Shaw Chief of Lockheed Martin India spoke to AEROSPACE on a possible interest in the company’s WindTracer light detection and ranging (LIDAR), wind and aerosol measurement technology used worldwide to improve aviation safety and efficiency. To LM gets the credit for launching a skilling initiative to promote the invisible half of the workforce, women, along with Delhi-based NGO Women in Aviation, India Chapter to create awareness on aviation jobs.

Following approval given by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, there are also plans to develop water aerodromes in the country. Amphibious planes can now use open water areas for landing and takeoff and they might have connected terminal buildings on land where the planes can choose to dock. The first two are planned to come up at the Chilika Lake in Odisha (East) and the Sardar Sarovar Dam and Sabarmati River Front in Gujarat (West). See Making a Splash, AEROSPACE, p14 February 2018.

Who knows what opportunities this might hold?




Neelam Mathews
9 October 2018

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