Friday, May 24, 2024

India: The Next Hub Option Is Still A Distance Away

By Bikram Vohra

An article recently focused on India serving as the possible east-west hub of the future. It was written with much enthusiasm and echoed a certain rising belief in the industry that India could possibly be the east-west hub of the future. India’s carriers invest heavily in aircraft and widen their route maps, and it would be premature, even self-defeating, to assume that Indian carriers are a threat to the trinity of Emirates, Qatar and Etihad as far as being the midway hubs concerned. 

Historically, India is extremely well placed on the map to perform this role, but it will require some very serious and expensive inputs. Her two biggest assets are her domestic uplift and her tourism potential. But for these factors to become major players and impact on the so-called challenge of offering an attractive alternative and being the break on the girdle routes, the infrastructure must be dramatically changed. 

The trinity of the Gulf has a powerful hold at present and is backed by state-of-the-art airports, cutting-edge technology and A-class intermodal systems that offer instant access to inner cities and splendid connectivity. They also offer a highly competitive inflight service in relatively new aircraft. Modern airports with all the facilities to make a stopover or transit comfortable and entertaining. That is a lot.

For India to become a viable contender, the foundation must be on her airport network. The one way to bring it up to par is to privatise the whole network with codicils of penalties if they are not up to standard demand. This will not only facilitate healthy competition but will make good use of resources.

India’s two major strengths must be capitalised upon in a studied and sound fashion. Her passenger numbers, where 92% of 1.5 billion people have never flown, combined with a diaspora of 37 million spread across the globe, thereby offer the promise of massive potential. The other is her geographical positioning, which hasn’t changed in thousands of years. During the progress of civil aviation over the past century, the aspiration to be an east-west hub never really took off. 

There is a third factor: India’s cultural diversity and the tourism paradise marked by a developed hospitality sector and a rich tapestry of history and heritage..…places to go, things to see…and to do.

What is lacking is an across-the-board upgradation and co-ordination of all these positive elements.  

To be a serious contender that goes beyond rhetoric and pie-in-the-sky hopes, the concentration must be on the infrastructure. Airports today are the key.

Let us first examine the weaknesses in the fabric. Today’s best airports are city ports, state-of-the-art entities that are graded by their speed and efficiency of service. They are also home to multiple eateries and high street shopping. In fact, duty-free is no longer the only purchase option.

But, more importantly, the forward movement with no retracing of footsteps must be smooth and swift. In Dubai, as of October, there is now no need to even take out your passport courtesy of the Big Data technology that sees a passenger through electronic gates by registering fingerprints and eye scans. Since all details are already in the system, the paperless trail intensifies. India has reintroduced disembarkation cards for non-Indians, and that intensifies the paper trail, which is hardly conducive to thinking ahead.

That ‘babu’ bureaucratic attitude must be totally discarded. At the outset, we must also strengthen our intermodal options. Of the 34 international and 124 domestic airports, most are a distance from the city and not well connected by surface transportation. It often takes over an hour to reach the city centre. This is a very important aspect when it comes to domestic under-two-hour operations. 

If it is going to take five hours from point to point for a one-hour journey, then why not just take a train or a modern sleeper bus? Space restriction limited hi-tech systems at Air Traffic Control (ATC), baggage handling, catering, and check-in delays in security make more flights a direct contributor to an unhappy experience. 

Most of our airports in India face challenges in terms of outdated facilities, inadequate runways, limited terminal capacity, and outdated technology. Insufficient infrastructure can lead to congestion, delays, and inefficiencies. Looking from the outside in, we have only six Cat III B airports that can land in all weather conditions.

The CAT III-B ILS has been successfully operational at Indira Gandhi International Airport (runways 28, 29 and 11), Amritsar (runway 34), Lucknow (runway 27), and Jaipur (runway 27) and Kolkata and Bengaluru. 

A recent Rajya Sabha Parliamentary report a total of 148 operational airports. It is concerning to note that only 22 of these airports are making profits. This disparity underscores the necessity for a more strategic approach to airport management and operations. As of this year, 12 more airports will be added to the 25 that are privatised. 

The argument now is whether privatisation should be encouraged. The plus points speak for themselves. The government should establish a regulatory framework that encourages competition while ensuring fair practices, and this oversees all operations so there is no pillaging and accountability is established. The regulatory body sets performance standards, monitors compliance and ensures transparency.

The bidding process should prioritise experienced and financially sound companies so they hit the ground running. In partnership with the government, the two sectors can ensure that resources are properly used, and that there is healthy competition. Also, there is then no political influence in forcing loss-making routes to please the powers that be. The downside is that private companies should not be allowed to enjoy a monopoly through their financial influence.

At the same time, the government should invest in the training and upskilling of airport staff to enhance service quality and efficiency. Training programs should focus on customer service, safety protocols, and technology utilisation to keep pace with global aviation standards. Private operators should be given support so they can afford to invest in advanced technologies and promote environmental sustainability.

We must be brutally honest if we are ever to see ourselves as competitors for the role of the east-west hub. Why would a long-haul passenger decide to move away from Dubai or Abu Dhabi or Doha and shift to Mumbai or Delhi unless the attractions and advantages were equal and more? 

While patriotic fervour might make a little impact, it is no longer the deciding factor, and the average passenger is now motivated by necessity, comfort, convenience, reward, and courtesy. That is why simply having a roster of aircraft is not enough. The infrastructure must stretch beyond airports, airstrips, avionics, and ATC to trained staff on the ground and in the air. Manpower that knows its job is the second key to moving into the big league.

For now, it is a pleasing sensation to believe India can be a challenge, and the first step now should be to go in for more alliances and partnerships so that a single ticket journey over multiple destinations becomes a reality. 

Bikram Vohra is the Consulting Editor of Indian Aerospace & Defence

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