From a disastrous 2020 to a turbulent 2021, India’s aviation ecosystem has been taking steps towards restoring normalcy or at least towards being part of what is often described as the new normal.
When it looked like we were out of a raging pandemic and global lockdown, the deadly second wave of COVID-19 had an impact that was worse than the initial outbreak.
While the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the sector regulator, announces data relating to airlines and market share on a calendar-year basis, the state-owned Airports Authority of India publishes the passenger footfalls at airports on a financial year basis.
The data has thus been normalised to calendar year 2021 to map the top 10 airports in the country - international, domestic and by footfalls.
The drop in passenger numbers linked to the pandemic coincided with the Adani Group winning bids for six airports and then having to delay the process.
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No change at the top - but traffic driven by domestic travellers
With a footfall of 3,71,39,957 passengers, Delhi airport continued to lead the airport charts in the country; its lead has been increasing all these years, with Mumbai airport continuing to be second with just 1,97,86,522 passengers. The third spot was bagged by Bengaluru airport, which recorded 1,60,73,009 passengers in 2021.
While traffic is lower than in the pre-COVID era across airports, there is one change which has been evident - a major chunk of the traffic is now domestic as compared to a fair balance pre-pandemic.
Delhi, for example, now generates 85.21% of its total traffic from domestic travel; it constituted 72% pre-pandemic. The data is even more skewed at other airports, with domestic traffic comprising 99.9% in Pune, 98.6% in Goa, 97.5% in Kolkata, 94% of total traffic in Bengaluru, 91.45% in Ahmedabad, 89.9% in Hyderabad, 87.7% in Mumbai and 85.6% in Chennai. The only airport in top 10 which was largely driven by international numbers was Kochi, where 43% of all passenger footfalls was international.
Domestic and international
There are a few airports in the country where international traffic has traditionally been higher or at par with domestic traffic. Trichy and Kochi are two examples. While Trichy is not in the top 10, Kochi was the third busiest airport in terms of international traffic, only lower than Delhi and Mumbai, but notched up higher passenger footfalls than Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru.
This was largely driven by the fact that Air India Express has a major presence in Kochi and Air India Express and Air India have been at the forefront of the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) which the Indian government launched to get Indians stranded abroad home and vice versa.
Kochi, Trivandrum, Lucknow and Calicut, which are part of the top 10 international airports, do not find a place among the top 10 domestic airports; only Kochi makes it to the list of top 10 airports with total traffic, both domestic and international.
International: the money spinner and connector
For years, lobbying has gone on to grant the tag of an international airport to various airports across the country.
From a passenger perspective, a direct flight from their own city saves on costs to travel to the nearest international airport and saves on time as well with added convenience.
For a larger airport, like Delhi or Mumbai, international operations are the money spinners. These private airports, which have spent precious money to create mega terminals, rely on revenue-sharing from retail, lounge, food and beverage outlets, among others, to gain additional revenue.
All of this revenue gets categorised as non-aero revenue, and year over year, the focus has been high on the segment as a percentage of total revenue.
One of the reasons is that the aero revenue has severe capping in terms of charges that can be levied and the airports have to go through the regulator to charge a User Development Fee, which again is capped for a couple of years at a time.
This then leaves the airport operator with an option to gain revenue from non-aero avenues. But without passengers, this revenue stream has dried up.
But why? The Indian government, like many others across the world, has banned international flights except for those under the air bubble arrangement. This is limited to 35 countries at present, with a few other flights being part of evacuation / relief flights undertaken by Indian as well as foreign carriers.
With these flights restricted to a handful of airports - the major metros like Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad have seen a heavy slide in rankings. The maximum slide has been for Kolkata, which has moved out of top 10 for the last year in terms of international passengers. This is primarily due to the restrictions which were put in place by the state government and traditional traffic links from Kolkata to South-East Asia being strong; air bubbles there are either non-existent or started late.
A lot of focus has been on the airlines due to the losses which are being recorded by them, but an equally high impact has been on airports, which are a mix of state-owned and private facilities.While airlines have some flexibility to deploy their assets in sectors where rules are lenient, an airport has no such options. Kolkata, for example, has to abide by the rules of the state government, even if it impacts revenue, and so does every other airport!