During the Paris Air Show this year, IndiGo ordered 500 Airbus aircraft for its fleet. The next day, Air India placed an order for 470 aircraft, from both Airbus and Boeing. These 970 aircraft, expected to be inducted between mid-2025 and 2035, were hailed by the media but their addition will overcrowd the Indian civil aviation infrastructure.
Just to put the sheer numbers into perspective, the current holding of airlines in India is a little over 700 (718 in March this year according to a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release). Of these, only 55 are wider than the single aisle, narrow body Airbus A320 or the Boeing 737 families which comprise the rest.
IndiGo has now ordered 500 A320 narrow body aircraft but Air India’s order includes 70 wide body aircraft (40 A350s, 20 Boeing 787s and 10 Boeing 777Xs). The average wing span and length of a wide body are close to or more than twice those of narrow body aircraft. That means that they require correspondingly more space for parking and taxying, not to mention greater burden on the terminal facilities as also increased passenger processing and boarding times.
Air traffic issues
So, these additional aircraft, including 70 wide body ones, are going to be somehow shoe horned into the existing air traffic scenario. Currently the IndiGo schedule shows the first flight of the day from Delhi to Mumbai departing at 0155 hours while the last one departs at 2340 hours.
The reverse leg has similar first and last departure times daily. All the red eye flights in this schedule highlight the fact that the more comfortable slots that a passenger would prefer during his normal wakeful hours are not available. The Delhi-Mumbai sector has the maximum overcrowding, but other sectors are not far behind. So where are the slots to be allotted to the new aircraft that come in?
A parking slot is implicit in the grant of a No Objection Certificate (NOC) for import of an aircraft. It is predicated to night parking which is an essential requirement for carrying out mandatory maintenance activities on aircraft which take 3- 4 hours on a narrow body and longer in wide body aircraft. Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are already bursting at their seams. The new airports coming up at Jewar and Navi Mumbai and the work-in-progress tarmac adjacent to the second runway at Bengaluru is expected to ease the situation. However, the additional space created would not be able to cater to the huge number of inductions.
So some of the new aircraft would have to be allotted parking slots at non-metros. This will not go down well with airlines looking to launch the bulk of their flights from bigger airports with maximum passenger loads. Inevitably, the slot allocation exercise will be based on an equitable sharing formula. This would mean that, while IndiGo and Air India would still get a sizeable number of slots in the metros, the smaller airlines will have hardly any slots there.
According to Ministry of Civil Aviation, there are 137 operational airports in the country and there is a plan to build 21 more greenfield ones. Whether our airports will be able to accommodate the 970 new aircraft is the big question.
Allotting parking slots in regional and remote airports may have the laudable objective of promoting regional air connectivity, but may not be economical for airlines, especially the smaller ones, some of which may bow out of the main sectors and get constrained to regional routes with smaller aircraft. This will eventually lead to a duopoly headed by IndiGo and Air India. Perhaps this is the strategic thinking behind the order for 970 aircraft.
The writer is an Air Force veteran and a former COO of an airline