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Cost of congestion

Hindu Business Line / Editorial / 23 March '07

Confronted with a congestion of flights during peak hour at the New Delhi and Mumbai airports, the Government has decided not to allow any new flights in that slot for the next seven months. This is akin to the response of passengers in an unreserved, crowded rail coach. Faced with the prospect of many more people trying to get in, they simply bolt the door. For the Civil Aviation Ministry, the ban is the easy and immediate way out of the problem, but one that is terribly wrong on those passengers who prefer flying in the morning rather than at midday, as also the new airlines which ought to have no less a right to serve them.

The problem, of course, has descended on the airports, and the Government, rather swiftly and caught them off guard, domestic air travel having risen at a phenomenal pace. Having traditionally grown at less than 10 per cent a year, the number of domestic air passengers shot up by 46 per cent in April-December 2006 over the corresponding previous period. The nimblest of producers might have been hard put to it to meet such a booming demand. To be fair to the new breed of low-cost airlines, they not only set the stage for this booming performance with attractive fares, but also acquitted themselves admirably in providing seats for the burgeoning travellers. Their exuberance and the resultant pace have proved a bit too much for the rest of the system airport terminals, the security apparatus and air traffic control.

Rather than halt the young, energetic airlines in their tracks, the Government must get the entire system up and running just as enthusiastically. Runways at the two airports are turning out to be bottlenecks simply because air traffic control procedures are outdated and too conservative to let as many flights take off each hour as needed. New Delhi needs to ask itself how airports elsewhere in the world manage to get twice as many aircraft into the air each hour from a runway. Again, though there is a secondary runway at both airports, that is not always put to use, causing long queues to build on the primary runway. If this sub-optimal use is due to a shortage of air traffic controllers, the Government ought to intervene and re-allocate staff from airports elsewhere. If it is a matter of want of technology, surely that too can be obtained quickly. The cost can hardly be a hurdle, for the airlines claim they are losing several hundred crore rupees a year on this account. This is the heart of the problem that the Government cannot fight shy of treating. Closing the door on new flights can at best help buy some time, but should growth continue at this pace, it may be a pretty short respite.