Flight Plan

Air traffic soars in smaller airports

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on January 10, 2021

Migrants returning to work and holidaymakers on long weekends spurred flyer numbers in small towns

The saying small is beautiful seems to be especially true for airports located in Indian towns, particularly as aviation limps back to normal in the Covid-19 pandemic.

It started with Belgaum (Karnataka) reporting a positive growth in flyer numbers in September last year. The trend has now gathered momentum with at least five other small airports — Gaggal (Himachal Pradesh), Pathankot (Punjab), Prayagraj, Gorakhpur and Hindon (Uttar Pradesh) — showing a higher flyer rate in November 2020 than that in November 2019. November 2020 is the latest month for which information is available in the public domain.


Anupama Arora, Vice President and Sector Head, ICRA Ltd, points out that the overall passenger traffic declined by 79 per cent year-on-year in eight months of fiscal 2021. This was a decline of 80 per cent YoY in the metros, and of 75 per cent in the non-metros. “In November 2020, passenger traffic in non-metros accounted for 52 per cent of the previous year; in metros, around 40 per cent of the previous year,” Arora adds. She believes that this happened because of a relatively lower impact of Covid-19 in the non-metros in the initial months when commercial travel was permitted. The pace of recovery was relatively faster at these smaller airports.

“The increased traction in passenger traffic in select non-metro cities was partly due to travel to home towns amidst the festive season and movement of migrant workers back to cities on the back of recovery in projects and industrial production activity in select sectors,” Arora reasons. One-off factors such as post-election travel also had an impact on passenger numbers at smaller airports, she adds.

Another reason for smaller airports doing better once limited domestic flight operations started in May last year was that people were flying home after being stuck in their workplaces because of the lockdown. The wedding season, as well as a few long weekends in November, also led to air travel.

There are indications that smaller airports would also have done well in December because of the impact of the farmers’ stir on road travel.

In comparison, since airports in the metros had a larger proportion of business travellers in pre-Covid-19 times, increased acceptance of virtual modes for meetings constrained their passenger recovery.

Jagannarayan Padmanabhan, Director & Practice Leader — Transport & Logistics, CRISIL Infrastructure Advisory, describes the smaller airports’ performance as the democratisation of air travel in the country. “Directionally we should see growth happening on a sustained basis at tier II locations. Also tier I airports had some access restrictions in one leg of travel,” he points out.

VP Agarwal, former Chairman, Airports Authority of India, however cautions against reading too much in this development. “Growth at small airports is not much of an indicator as the base is very small. Besides, the Regional Air Connectivity (RCS) scheme of the government provides safer movement to small towns,” he points out.

Arora agrees that some small airports are under the RCS scheme with fare restrictions, but adds there may also have been migration of passenger traffic, especially from alternative modes such as the railways, on select routes.

Published on January 10, 2021

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