Posted by: John Elliott | July 13, 2007

India’s crowded skies get more chaotic

“We’re always on time” said the airline attendant. “You’ll be okay for your connection,” I had been told an hour or so earlier when I had phoned to see if 25 minutes was a sufficient layover between flights. Amazingly, the check-in desk information was reassuringly the same.

Where was I? Obviously not India, where flight delays of anything from 30 minutes to two hours have been common this year. I was in South Africa, and the super-confident (low-cost) airline was It was flying me from Cape Town to Johannesburg, where I had a 35-minute gap between the arrival time and the check-in desk closing for my South African Airways flight to Mumbai. And yes, the flight was on time.

It’s a pity it is not like that in India, where debilitating delays have been caused by the Aviation Ministry. In three years the government agency has allowed an excessive number of new airlines and let existing carriers expand their fleets without improving airport facilities. Last year, India’s airports handled 90 million passengers, a third more than the prior year. Currently there are 300 to 320 aircraft in use and orders for new planes will double that figure by 2012.

But there has been little improvement in airports’ ground handling, or the space available for aircraft to park. This is causing major delays in landings and takeoffs, which frustrates passengers and pushes up airline losses. (Unlike in the United States and elsewhere, the Indian government and the airlines don’t release data about airport delays, but the problem is apparent to almost any visitor.)

Praful Patel, the urbane Minister of Aviation, wowed journalists about three years ago with a fast-talking video presentation of how airports around the country would look when they were rapidly modernized. Delhi and Mumbai airports were handed last year to private sector contractors, but progress has been slow and there’s been little improvement elsewhere.

Patel now says the extra flights and lower ticket prices that have been generated by the airline growth are worth the pain. That’s typical of old India – you have to struggle for your achievements!

Patel’s next dream is to transform India’s two inefficient and unpopular airlines – Air India and Indian (formerly Indian Airlines) – by merging them later this month into a new National Aviation Company.

I (like many other people) don’t understand how merging two failures without changing the ownership or top management can achieve anything except compound failure, but Patel is confident – and he isn’t yet talking about pain. Fortunately, there are enough private-sector airlines, like Jet and semi-merged Kingfisher-Deccan, to use instead. But, sadly, airports are a monopoly and there is no choice – apart from traveling by rail.

India could pay a steep price if it doesn’t fix its air transportation soon. Last month the Financial Times reported that the Lord Mayor of London warned Gordon Brown, now Britain’s prime minister, that “business executives will only do business with us if they find it easy to use our airports – and at the moment it is not.” He was especially critical of Heathrow airport which, as I discovered again last week, is even worse on its bad days than Delhi or Mumbai. But Britain’s regional airports are relatively good: India’s are not.


  1. Praful permits only foreign airlines to fly in and out of India. Nearly forty foreign airlines including new cos like Air Arabia fly into India. No companies of Indian origin except jet Airways, of which he was a Director, is allowed to enter or expand.
    Free enterprise is dead in India! Long live Indian democracy!

  2. Factual article. Minister Praful claims have not been backed with performance. He has been talking of improving Airport infrastructure..only talking.
    India’s open sky policy is bull shit because not a single new airline was allowed to enter during the last four years by Praful.
    The merger of two state owned airlines and their accumulated loss of over Rs700 crores will only lead to privitasation of these airlines. That is exactly what the businessman Praful wants. The assets of the State owned airlines is being siphoned off and one day, private airlines like Jet will take over.
    Have you seen any loss making company going for expansion? AirIndia has booked new planes from Boeing for Rs 50000 crores. How much money changed hands in under hand deal is common Delhi talk.
    Minister Praful is not just murdering Indian Aviation but killing Free enterprise though he will pretend to be an angel. Performance speaks.

  3. You might be right about delays in India but have you read data about 32% all US flights were delay last year. India shouldn’t be looking at US or UK for fixing their airport delay issues. I was in India last month and took 8 flights in 7 days, I was delayed only once due to construction at Mumbai airport runway. Where as in US last 5 flight I have been were delayed.

  4. Even though the large airports are going to be complete esp in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai.
    It would be interesting to see the flight delays and other statistics.

    My parents came last month fromn Hyderabad and they are confident that the Hyderabad airpoort is going to be world class.

    In india even now after checking the bags you can come out, you have to be in lounge till the departure.
    I am not sure this will improve but it something annoying to me and I like it in USA.

    In the coming years the delays are going to be longer especially security clearance for pasengers is going to be big taska and the delays acaused by this is horrible.
    I don’t see if this will be imroved unless you are in Tele Aviv Isreal which is supposed by the most safest airport in the world.

  5. I am a Long term expat in India, I just normally accept flight delays, little or any information from the airline and the usual chaos at the airports. India airlines treat passengers even worse than just about anywhere else. Lost luggage is common and a true horror story. I always try and fly any non Indian airline when ever possible.

  6. Yes, you have a point about the crowded Indian skies. But, the situtation is kind of worse in the US, esp in New York. Last week we sat in the tarmac for close to 3 hours…there were about 40 planes lined up in the runaway waiting to take off. And a coupple of weeks prior to that it took us over an hour to get clearance to land in New York.

    Maybe India should look at the US airports to fix their current problems?

  7. well,thats hard to take but very true

  8. Based on the incidents below:

    1. The story of Air India’s L.A. Flight,0,964643.story?coll=la-home-headlines

    2. The story of our Air India flight from Hell – AI137, 48 hour delay, dangerous equipment problems (just brakes) , passenger revolt…etc…

    > >

    3. This interesting story from the east coast AI145 (“Landing gear…who needs landing gear?”) and

    4. These intesting tidbits from India regarding two more fun flights 1x Air India/1x Indian Airlines (same company but domestic).

    It almost makes you want to clear the runways whenever you hear these guys are belly floppin’ in.

  9. Great article,

    I am an Indian and thanks for writing about this!!!!


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