Delhi airport mayhem: Why ‘band-aid’ remedies wouldn’t fix the problem

Instead of building mini-cities at airports, the owners can make them future-ready, which allows them to handle more passengers daily, increase the number of runways, increase jet bridges, more security check-in points, have several more baggage carousels and reduce the distance between security check-ins and gates from where passengers enter the aircraft

Delhi airport chaos, Jyotiraditya Scindia, security clearance, Indira Gandhi International Airport, T3 Terminal, airport metrics
Chaos has prevailed at the Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi for the past few weeks with passengers complaining about missing their flights due to delayed security clearance. | Photo: Twitter

The sheer pandemonium that has engulfed the Indira Gandhi International Airport’s T3 terminal is indicative of a broader problem that plagues airports in the country’s metro cities.

In the recent weeks, travellers streaming into the T3 terminal have been forced to spend hours attempting to pass the security check-in, resulting in most of them missing their flights. Passengers complained on social media that they had to wait in line for more than two hours to receive a security clearance. The situation deteriorated to such a degree that the Union Minister of State for Aviation, Jyotiraditya Scindia, was compelled to rush to the airport to calm the passengers and convene a meeting of all parties involved to find a solution to the chaos.

Also read: Scindia visits Delhi airport after complaints of congestion; increases number of entry gates

Scindia proposed a four-point plan to facilitate and expedite security procedures. These include reducing peak hour departures at Terminal 3 from 19 per hour to 14, converting Gate 1A and Gate 1B for passenger use, installing an automatic tray retrieval system, and increasing the number of X-ray screening devices from 14 to 15.

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‘Fog, rush of passengers crowd airports’

Airport officials have said that some of the primary reasons for the chaos at the airport is because of dense fog, which is delaying flight departures, and there has been a great rush of ‘leisure passengers’ who wish to take advantage of the post-COVID relaxation rules to fly down to vacation spots.

The current situation at Bengaluru and Mumbai airports may be better than at T3, but depending on the season, they may get congested at some point in time. Long lines, aggravating security check-in procedures, and multiple inspections are commonplace in metropolitan airports.

Scindia’s quick fix

The four-pronged plan proposed by Scindia to alleviate congestion at Delhi airport is more of a quick fix than a long-term solution. Reducing departures by 25 per cent at the largest airport in the country may sound like a smart idea. But travellers with connecting flights or business meetings will find it difficult to make last-minute adjustments. There are no indications at present on how long flight cancellations will last. “There is a specific reason why travellers must depart at a particular time. Rescheduling their flights to a later time defeats the point,” said former airline CEO who wished to be anonymous, adding that more machines such as X-ray screening machines and tray retrieval systems can be installed instead.

Also read: India to add 80 more airports in 4-5 years: Civil Aviation Ministry

Need for more utilitarian airports

While more machines, such as X-ray screening and tray retrieval systems, can be installed to alleviate passenger congestion at security checkpoints, the ministry has been silent about increasing the number of CRPF personnel at airports. The Delhi airport handles over 70 million people annually, but the number of CRPF troops has stayed the same in the past five years. In 2017, the number of passengers was between 55 and 60 million, while the number of CRPF personnel was approximately 5,000. The T3 terminal handles over 500 domestic and 250 international flights, requiring at least three times as many CRPF troops to man security checkpoints.

According to analysts, the country requires more utilitarian airports than aesthetic and secondary airports in all major metropolitan areas. Capt. G.R. Gopinath, the pioneer of low-cost airlines in India, has consistently advocated constructing low-cost airports so that low-cost airports might operate there at reduced rates. Therefore, secondary airports in the same city that serve solely low-cost and non-metros airlines should have been required. This would have resolved the problems facing the country’s largest airport in the nation’s capital.

Need for low-cost airports

Another significant point to consider is that all metros in the country have massive airports with retail malls, spas, and other amenities. For the same money, the developers might have built jet bridges that allow passengers to board aircraft directly from the terminal gate. This saves significant time for entry and exit, hence minimising congestion.

Remote stands, used for passenger entry and exit from the tarmac and ferry passengers from a bus to the terminal, are less expensive and so chosen by low-cost airlines. Having a low-cost airport in each metro would have solved this problem. “Building massive airports with retail malls and other such facilities just raises airport developers’ costs, which they must pass on to service providers. As a result, most airports are unviable,” Pankaj Narayan Pandit, an airline expert who previously worked for Air India and Sabre, a multinational travel technology company, told The Federal.

Also read: Delhi airport 2nd busiest in March, jumps 21 places to displace Dubai

He said that most airports, including those in metros, have been incurring huge losses and seeking loans from public sector banks to fund their expansion and operational costs. Earnings data for airports in India showed that they collectively posted losses of ₹2,882.74 crore in FY2021 (loss of ₹465.91 crore in FY19), reflecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The airline analyst said these include losses incurred by privately held airport groups, GVK, GMR, BIAL, and MIAL. “Incurring such huge losses cannot be sustained for long. The full-service carriers like Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways refused to read the writing on the wall. They finally ended up shutting down their operations. By building grand Taj Mahal-like airports, airport owners will likely end up in a similar situation,” Pandit pointed out.

‘Airports need to be planned like cities’

Instead of building mini-cities at airports, the owners can make them future-ready, which allows them to handle more passengers daily, increase the number of runways, increase jet bridges, more security check-in points, have several more baggage carousels and reduce the distance between security check-ins and gates from where passengers enter the aircraft. For example, the Bangalore International Airport recorded passenger volumes of 16.30 million in the current financial year until October, far exceeding the airport’s existing capacity. Other metro airports face a similar situation and need to beef up capacity faster if they have to handle an increasing inflow of passengers.

All these points to the fact that while modern airports look glitzy, running them is a very complex business. They need planning similar to the way new townships are planned.

Also read: 30 airports, terminals named after eminent persons including former PMs

The airport operators and the Ministry of Civil Aviation should also collaborate to limit the number of security checkpoints and the number of items in passenger luggage that are subject to required inspection. This can be accomplished by utilising more advanced machines, which requires a more significant financial commitment. ‘Band-aid’ remedies cannot solve problems permanently; they can only postpone their resolution.

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