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‘Airports handle fog to an extent, no chances with safety’

Videh Kumar Jaipuriar: The Delhi airport has been one of the best globally in terms of passenger satisfaction and growth, barring the two years of Covid. Post-Covid, we are already back at better-than-pre-Covid level. CY2023 saw traffic of about 72 million, better than pre-Covid levels of about 69 million. Aviation will grow strongly, both in the domestic as well as international markets. Typically, a very rough cut figure if I put in terms of economic growth versus aviation growth, you can put a multiplying factor of about 1.5 to 1.6. So, if the economy is growing at about 6%, we can expect aviation to grow at closer to 10%.

How to handle growth without compromising on passenger safety/convenience is our model at the Delhi airport. Excerpts:

Shahid Faridi: Traffic has started picking up post-Covid. You are expanding passenger facilities. But you have limited number of runways. How do you reconcile to that?

There are three parts of the airport design — city-side, runway and terminal. You’d see as T1 expanded, we also widened the road followed by terminal and airside capacity. So, all the three will have to work in tandem.

As we expand the T1 terminal, its capacity will go up from 14 million to 17 million. Earlier, we had only 32 aircraft stands in T1. We are now moving to 82 aircraft stands because there will be an additional flight movement. We now have 22 passenger boarding bridges as well, so that we can have a faster turnaround. Earlier, for refueling, we used a bowser, now we have laid out the pipeline so that it can immediately be filled in. Besides, the fourth runway will add to the capacity. The Eastern Cross Taxiway is saving fuel apart from increasing the efficiency of the airfield.

Prabhu Chawla: When you say you are planning for the future, did you not plan for future connectivity between terminals? Also, how do you solve the delay in passenger entry at the gates?

The passenger entry delay at the gates is more than a one-and-a-half-year-old story. Since then, we’ve opened newer gates. We haven’t deployed any additional CISF so even if it’s one gate, there are three CISF personnel deployed over there. There are three lines which can be processed simultaneously. At present, my waiting time at the gate is not more than five minutes.

Terminal 1 is now a problem because of the expansion work. In next one-and-a-half months, the whole thing will open up.

Terminal 2 is an old-design terminal we have used as stopgap. We will discontinue it for the time being. At that place, as per the Master Plan, T4 will be developed, completely new. We have improved inter-terminal connectivity quite a bit since we now have electric buses — earlier only normal DTC buses were plying between terminals, free-of-cost. Now, there are brand new electric buses which ply every 15 minutes between terminals. We are also in the process of running an RFP for APM, Automatic People Mover, so there will be a train connecting all three terminals. It will take some time to execute — around 24-30 months.

Arshad Khan: How about flight delays due to fog? Apparently the runways are not CAT-III compliant?

Santwana Bhattarchya: Fog in winter is something everyone anticipates, but the situation is just the same every year …

We have seen the worst fog in five years. Airports are designed to handle fog up to a certain extent. Just to give you some numbers: flights can land in CAT IIIB if the visibility is 50 meters and can take off if the visibility is 125 metres. Today (January 15) morning, we had zero visibility. So, whatever facility you have in that kind of a natural phenomenon, you cannot handle such a situation because nobody can take chances with safety. If visibility improves to 100 meter, aircraft can land but they cannot take off. Now, on an average, per hour, we have around 35 aircraft landings. If a flight doesn’t take off, in two-three hours, we will have 70 additional aircraft sitting on the ground. On January 14, we had to pack some of these aircraft in our taxiway because visibility was 125m. That is where departure delays happened.

As far as past years are concerned, there was only one day of the 100-meter visibility situation. There are three things that actually need to be compliant for any aircraft or any pilot to land in — the runway and the aircraft need to be CAT III-compliant. That is why the DGCA issues a directive every year that in the evening, especially during fog, all pilots flying into Delhi have to be compliant.

Being trained on CAT-IIIB takes time; then pilots’ minima (the criteria used by pilots to determine whether they may land or take off) kicks in.

Dipak Mondol: Do you think the timing for the expansion was wrong?

Probably yes, but practically no. At any point of time, if I don’t have at least three runways operational at Delhi airport, I would have had to cut air traffic. So, unless my fourth runway got operationalised, which happened in July, I could not have taken the third runway out. And after that we had G20. So, I couldn’t have taken a risk till September. So, I had no option but to go for that refurbishment, much to the dismay of our operations people. But the surface was really damaged, and we had got DGCA advice that we should actually get it carpeted as soon as possible. We pushed our team to get it done in three months.

Suchitra Mohanty: How many runways are CAT-III compliant? Will there be a waiver of ADF and UDF charges?

The northern-most runway is called 927, which is what I call the ‘tedha’ (skewed) runway. That is not CAT-III compliant, and there are technical difficulties. So that will not be CAT-III compliant. The other three runways will be. The UDF is a part of the aeronautical charges determined by the Airport Economic Regulatory Authority and they take various factors into account — the investment made, the expenses related to the handling of the airport etc. It is then cross-subsidised with non-aeronautical income. So, everything else that we do, 30% is cost subsidy. As of now we are the cheapest airport in terms of UDF: it is only `77 (per ticket).

Yeshi Seli: Is Terminal 2 going to be renovated? If yes, then we’ll have Terminal 1, Terminal 3 and 4. Your expansion plans?

There will be no T2 once Terminal 4 is developed. After Terminal 1 is fully operational, Terminal 2 will be shut down. So, it will be Terminal 1, 3 and 4. As far as expansion is concerned, we are always on the lookout. We are the second-biggest developer of airports. We are in talks with some countries to develop or operate their airports.

Dipak Mondol: Do you think congestion at runaways has become worse due to aircraft groundings?

Operational challenges are always there — about 64 planes are either defunct or grounded at our runways.

Dipak Mondol: How is competition in India going on with Adani? Are you up for bidding for the new airport?

Adani is an operator and we are an operator plus builder. We will participate in whatever new airports come up for privatisation because we are one of the largest players in this business, globally.

Preetha Nair: There were reports that travellers were asked to give their facial biometrics through Digi Yatra without their consent…

I have proof that it is not correct. Digi Yatra asks passengers if they want to use facial biometrics. The button is with the passenger, and if one refuses, it won’t be used. We are going to put up posters that the facility is voluntary.

Suchitra Mohanty: Will T3 be used only for international passengers?

Based on our 2016 Master Plan, Terminal 3 was designated exclusively for international flights. But due to evolving market conditions, we are revisiting the plan.

Santwana Bhattarchya: Do you believe Delhi airport is an aspirational model?

Airports should primarily enhance passenger experience. I always use this example: A green building costs about 6% more. But when we look at electricity savings, there is a payback within 10 years.

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