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Building regional airports on overdrive, but are they viable?

The economies of scale might reduce the fares one day. But a long wait lies ahead, writes Rasheed Kappan

By Rasheed Kappan
New Update

publive-image Kalaburagi airport in Karnataka inaugurated by the then Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa in November 2019 | Photo courtesy: Vishnu N

Beyond the big cities, in remote towns and district headquarters, air connectivity is a distant dream. But what if politicians devised grand airport plans to propel those regions into global aviation maps, fast-tracking development? This frenzy has gripped Karnataka, even as big questions are being raised about such mega projects’ economic viability and utility.

Consider this: On December 7, Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai unveiled plans for a new international airport in Tumakuru, barely 70 km from Bengaluru. His rationale was clear: Decongest Kempegowda International Airport, the country’s third busiest and give an impetus for growth in the district. This will add to the 13 airports already being built across the State. Five of these aerodromes will be operational within the next 16 months in Koppal, Raichur, Davanagere, Bagalkot and Chikkamagaluru - all areas outside the mainstream flight zones. The big question, however, is, what explains this trend? Are they really sustainable, and will passenger numbers justify the big bucks spent?

Commercial viability

Viability is indeed an issue, say, aviation experts. “Airports demand high maintenance and running expenditure, and they are not like bus and train services that can be shut down for a week. Although trains were halted during the pandemic, they could recover the costs by running goods trains. But airlines cannot do that. Their assets are very expensive, and operational costs are on the higher side,” notes Sanjeev Dyamannavar, an urban mobility analyst. 

Besides, the high investments already made on railways and highways make airports within a distance of 300 km unsustainable. “With the government trying to increase train speeds between major towns, through Vande Bharat for instance, a larger community of travellers is served.” Express trains can cover the 70 km distance between Tumakuru and Bengaluru City in 50 minutes. This can be further reduced to 40 minutes with Vande Bharat trains.

Regional air connectivity between Hubballi city and Belagavi on the Karnataka-Maharashtra border also makes little sense. “The travel time is only 70 minutes. If you were to fly, you need to factor in an hour’s advance check-in time, 30 minutes of flying, and checkout time. It will work out to be 2.5 hours.” 

Connection to metros

Entrepreneur and founder of low-cost airline Air Deccan, Capt G R Gopinath, gives a different perspective on the entire issue. He says regional airports are required but must be connected to the metro cities. However, this does not happen now because mega, private international airports have a monopoly. “Today, we need connectivity not just between Mumbai and Delhi, Mumbai - New York and Mumbai - Dubai, but the question is how do you connect Mumbai to Kolhapur? Mumbai to Sholapur? The private sector is reluctant to give slots to small, regional aircraft because they don’t make money for the airports. So you don’t get slots and timings there.”

publive-image Terminal 2, Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru | Photo courtesy: @MoCA_GoI

Private players’ monopoly 

To boost regional connectivity, he recalls, the Centre had come up with the Udaan (Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik), an Air Deccan concept. “Despite this, there is a huge problem getting connectivity to the regional airports. Flying from Delhi to smaller towns is very difficult. Fortunately, in Delhi, you are getting a new airport which is a competition to the existing airport. London has six airports, all international. Mumbai has only one. A second one is coming. But they are all monopolies.” 

Citing government data, Capt Gopinath says that even today, only 4% of Indians travel by air. “We need every Indian to fly at least once a year, which is quite a dream. But to ensure that, not only should airlines and airports compete, you must have lower taxes on fuel in airports. Also, it would help if you had multiple airports so that costs come down.” 

But in Bengaluru, competition from the old HAL Airport was snuffed out once the new international airport was commissioned in 2008. A concession agreement between the Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) and the Karnataka government mandated that no commercial airport could operate within a 150-km radius of the new airport for the next 25 years. 

Multiple airports within a city

The rationale is clear: Operated at a lower cost, alternative airports within a metro city can cater to flights linked to regional airports. Mega international airports find it tough to work at low prices. Adds Capt Gopinath, “We need smaller airports which can compete with the bigger airports so that you don’t need to go to a big, international airport to go to a small town like Hubballi from Bengaluru, or Bengaluru to Kalaburgi. You need at least two alternative airports, not only in Bengaluru but across the country.”

Currently, at least 21 new airports are in multiple planning and completion phases countrywide. Nine new ones have already been commissioned in Kannur, Kerala; Pakyong, Sikkim; Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh; Donyi Polo, Arunachal Pradesh; Durgapur, West Bengal; Shirdi, Maharashtra; Kalaburgi, Karnataka and Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh. 

Aviation experts have no issue with new regional airports provided they are sustainable economically and offer a faster alternative to road and rail. In Karnataka, however, new airports and proposals are seen as smart political moves to reap electoral dividends. But as political observers note, this can work only if the government upgrades connecting roads and other related infrastructure, woo investors, and invest money in local industrial development.  

publive-image Although the Mysuru Airport has been in existence since the 1940s, it has not really taken off in terms of passenger traffic | Photo courtesy: Sunny

Parallel investments 

In Kalaburgi, Karnataka, the local demand for an airport was based on the hope that it would boost business and employment. Once industries emerge, people could find jobs locally and not go searching in neighbouring Maharashtra. But people in the district now feel the government is not doing enough to get investors to the region. They fear the airport will eventually be used only by political VIPs with their chartered flights, helicopters and business jets. 

Plans for any new regional airport should be based on monitored data from existing airports. Aviation expert Capt Aravind Sharma says: “It is a chicken and egg issue. Somebody, typically the government, puts up an airport. But the economics and the market determine how many airlines come in and how many survive. Whether there is a quantum jump in traffic or only an incremental increase needs to be studied.”

The low passenger numbers from Bengaluru to an existing airport in Mysuru could offer some clues. Capt Aravind explains, “From Bengaluru City, you go in the opposite direction to catch a flight at KIA in the north to Mysuru, located in the South-west. You spend an hour and a half to reach the airport, and then there is a minimum of 1.5 hours before your flight departs. In all, it takes three hours.”

Compare this to a three-hour train journey. “You can reach any railway station in Bengaluru within 20-30 minutes. Ordinary trains also take only two and a half hours to reach Mysuru. Shatabdi and Vande Bharat take you one hour and 40 minutes. And trains take you from the city centre to the city centre. That is why schedules like Bengaluru - Mysuru or Mumbai - Pune just don’t work. They have a flight because somebody has forced an airline to do that. Whatever the occupancy, they keep operating. That is political. That is not economics. But private airlines won’t do that.” 

 Sustainability questions

Having worked at the HAL Airport for decades, retired Air Traffic Control (ATC) official S R Iyer has seen several airports being built and failing the feasibility test. The Mysuru airport, he recalls, has been there since the 1950s but is still not sustainable. “Despite an upgrade, every now and then, operations are shut down there for want of passengers,” he says.

The Udaan airports have a clear understanding with the State Governments that airlines are given concessional landing and other airport-related fees. “They are operationally sustainable because the government underwrites. So, even if a flight goes empty, the government pays for those seats. But even here, there are problems. The Hyderabad-based TruJet basically meant for Udaan support, folded up due to financial constraints. That is the case in the Northeast, too,” explains Iyer. 

To please politicians, he says, an airline might start a service to a new regional airport. But once it realises there is no traffic, it will stop operations. “Airports opened without a proper commercial feasibility study will meet the same fate. This will be the trend unless a city/town itself is upgraded. For instance, if some IT and manufacturing industries shift to Kalaburgi, creating some kind of demand for passengers and airlines are given incentives, it may work. Not otherwise.”

Ultimately, it is also about affordability. As Capt Aravind says, the typical argument that a flight fare can get as low as a train ticket or cheaper never happens. “If you want to go to Chennai from Bengaluru in a Shatabdi or a Vande Bharat, you can do it for a thousand bucks. A flight is never less than Rs 2,800.” The economies of scale might reduce the fares one day. But a long wait lies ahead. 


Rasheed Kappan is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru with nearly three decades of experience. In the past, he has worked in the Deccan Herald, The Hindu and The Times of India, covering issues related to urban mobility, sustainibility, environment and the interface between policy, planning and activation on the ground. A graphic cartoonist, he is the founder of Kappansky and explores the linkages of art, media and innovation through multiple creative platforms.