“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 Mango.com. 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.