The otherwise sleepy town of Kalaburagi has scorched the aviation map this year, with its airport already racking up higher passenger traffic than pre-COVID-19 days.
The number of passengers it handled in December jumped 336 percent to 7,170 compared with a year ago, matched by aircraft movement that soared 323 percent to 136. In February 2020, a month before the pandemic forced a national lockdown, Kalaburagi handled 4,435 passengers with 94 flights, data from Airports Authority of India shows.
That's among the highest growth rates for any airport in the country. It is among the handful airports that now have bettered their pre-COVID-19 performance. It has performed better than its bigger state peer, the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru.
What explains the rise of the airport that opened in November 2019?
Kalaburagi, also known as Gulbarga, may not have much an industrial presence. But makes up through its education institutes.
"It has a university with medical and engineering colleges," says Simran Singh Tiwana, CEO of regional airline Star Air that operates from the Kalaburagi airport.
Apart from education institutes, the town has Bijapur, Raichur and Latur as its neighbours, some of which also boast of medical and engineering colleges. Bijapur has a Sainik School. The airport gets customers from these tier-2 and tier-3 cities.
"Each of these places is about one to one-and-a-half hours of travel from Kalaburagi. So the airport connects them to other parts of the state and country," adds Tiwana. Till November 2019, Hyderabad was the closest airport, about 4.5 hours of drive away.
Two airlines operate from the Kalaburagi airport. Air India subsidiary Alliance Air and Star Air, which is the first airline in the country to have bettered pre-COVID-19 numbers.
"We now connect the city with Tirupati, Bengaluru and Hindon, which is in the National Capital Region," says Tiwana. The daily Bengaluru-Kalaburagi flight has 80 percent occupancy, much higher than the airline's average load factor. Star Air has the second highest load factor among Indian airlines, after SpiceJet
The tough part
While Tiwana says that Kalaburagi may go on to become as big a destination like Hubballi and Belgavi, which also started off with just one flight a day, it has not been a smooth flight.
There are multiple challenges when an airline starts off from an airport as new and small as Kalaburagi. "It is difficult to plan operations as there is no data or research. Like, we only have data on how many trains are operating between Bengaluru and Kalaburagi, and what's the traffic. But we don't know if the train is getting filled in Bengaluru or Kalaburagi," says Tiwana.
Also, airlines have to convince customers to fly. But one flight delay or cancellation - like it happened during a bad weather in Kalaburagi, which doesn't have an instrument landing system yet, can be a setback for airlines.
It is a risk that regional airlines have to take. For instance, FlyBig, which began operations in January, started off from Indore. It plans to expand to smaller cities like Bilaspur and Satna. "We will develop these places as destinations," CEO Srinivas Rao had told Moneycontrol.
The support from government through the regional connectivity scheme UDAN thus becomes crucial. "The paying power is low right now for customers. Without government support it becomes difficult," says Tiwana. Under UDAN, government gives airlines subsidies per seat.Overall, the larger trend of higher traffic in smaller cities augurs well for Kalaburagi.