Chaos at airports: A result of meaningless metrics and force-fit solutions

Chaos at airports: A result of meaningless metrics and force-fit solutions

It’s time for India-based solution for India-based challenges. These need to be incorporated so that marketing metrics reflect things that matter to the market, namely the Indian flyer

As news of airport chaos continues to make it to the headlines, several numbers are being floated. The chaos has been bad enough to force ministerial intervention, capacity reduction and also parliamentary summons. But once the dust settles, not much change is anticipated. Part of the reason are the airport metrics which lend themselves to marketing as opposed to operations. Most of these include annual capacity figures, which, at their very core, make for good marketing data.

Take, for example, the annual passenger handling capacity figures at metro airports of Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru which are 70 million, 52 million and 45 million, respectively. Yet these don’t translate into anything meaningful. The meaningful figure is that of peak hour capacity, but it is hard to be found.

Till the metrics are fixed and disclosed in a transparent fashion, the challenges will continue

It’s the peak capacity that counts

Airports advertise annual capacity figures as they make for impressive marketing. But these figures assume an even spread of traffic throughout the day, which is never the case. For any airport, it is peak capacity figures that count. And when it comes to processing passengers or cargo or handling aircraft, peak capacity is the limiter.

Watch: What’s causing the bottlenecks in India’s big airports?

Thus, a focus on peak handling capacity with built in constraints should bring up a set of numbers that would give the real picture — whether it is the ability of the runways to handle flights, or the terminals to handle passenger. But these figures are hardly to be found and closely guarded by airports. Till there is transparency on these numbers, operation challenges will continue.

At the Delhi airport for example, the much-touted number for handling capacity is 70 million per annum. It alludes to the fact that if everything flows smoothly with no bottlenecks and no hiccups, and if passengers and flights across all hours are distributed evenly, then this volume of passengers can go through the airport. It does not highlight the splits between the terminals (the airport has three terminals), the several bottlenecks and the ability to handle passengers per hour. As such, this annual number is meaningless. What actually should be advertised is the handling capacity per hour – a number much easier to comprehend and manage. Yet this is a number airports are very secretive about and is hardly published.

Per hour metrics needed

The old adage – ‘what is not measured does not get managed’ — holds true for the airport experience. With a focus on annual capacity numbers, the airports are inclined to put a disproportionate focus on building, rather than operating. The operations – which also constitute a large part of airport management – are conveniently overlooked. Add to that the monopoly position of airports coupled with lax consumer protection, and it is the flying public that bears the pain.

The recent chaos across airports, most notably Delhi airport, has forced folks to sit up and take note.

Yet again the metrics reveal much. Continuing with the Delhi airport as an example, based on Airports Authority of India (AAI) data, the airport handled 4.12 million domestic and 1.3 million international passengers in October. These numbers have grown further with all stakeholders aware of the growth as figures are published daily by the ministry of civil aviation. But when these numbers are adjusted between three terminals and for departures or arrivals, this translates to 5,000-7,000 passenger per hour during peak hours.

Also read: Delhi airport to get 1400 more CISF personnel to handle post-expansion rush

The total x-ray machines available are 14. Assuming a process time of 30 seconds per passenger, the ability to process at best is 2,000 passenger per hour. The official number given is 210 passengers per hour per x-ray (in an unconstrained scenario), which translates to 2,940 passengers per hour at all machines. Considering the peak passenger volume of 5,000+, the gap between what is required and what is available is fairly large. Throw in additional bottlenecks like document checks, priority queues and special queues, the delays are all but certain. As the per hour handling figures are not disclosed, the focus – consciously or otherwise — shifts away from the operational nature of things.

Such operational challenges for airports also extend to other areas. Another example is the car-parks. Airports often advertise the amount of spaces at the car park. But exit lanes from the car park are few and many a times some lanes are closed, making for exorbitant delays. Restrooms are often closed, elevators shut and for folks who want to take public transport from the airport – especially buses or rickshaws – these are put on the periphery. Going by the advertised metrics, it would seem that parking only matters for departures with other items that add to the overall experience glossed over. The list goes on…

India-based solutions

Airport operations in India are unique due to a variety of factors that include volume, values and variations between states. For starters, the Indian market is one of volumes — significant volumes. These volumes will only grow with time. Behaviourally, India is a market that has several first-time flyers and several not-so-regular flyers. To force-fit western models and assume that passenger behaviour will mirror that of the West is flawed, to say the least.

For airports, this means incorporating ideas but then developing them to fit to the Indian market as opposed to force-fitting solutions — solutions that focus on process, behaviour and technology. For example, one cannot simply say that Indian passengers like to travel with bags and thus the wait time; or, that at departure gates it is not unusual to see multiple folks come to “see-off” one passenger and thus the crowding. These are market realities and solutions have to be planned around them rather than penalizing passengers and aping the West in the hopes that the passenger will behave exactly the same way. This then extends to water-fountains, rest-rooms, atrium designs, escalators, travellators and building materials, to name a few. Each has to be looked at in the context of India and adapted accordingly. A monumental task, but needed nonetheless.

Also read: Congestion: AAI asks Delhi airport operator DIAL details on service quality requirements

Finally, an argument that has made its way thorough to debates is that Europe also faced challenges during the summer and airports like Heathrow in the UK and Schipol in Amsterdam were in a total mess. These need to be banished. India needs to set its own path and not compare meltdowns and say that ours was not as bad as some other party.

The time calls for India-based solution for India-based challenges. And these can indeed be incorporated so that marketing metrics reflect things that matter to the market, namely the Indian flyer.

As India continues its flightpath towards becoming the third-largest market, airport operations have to be a core focus. The chaos that was witnessed recently needs to be an exception and not the norm. Revisiting and fixing meaningless metrics and force-fit solutions is just the first step on this path.

(Satyendra Pandey is the Managing Partner at the aviation advisory firm AT-TV)

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