Oct 10, 2008

India - Change is in the air (port);Mumbai

Anjuli Bhargava

Mumbai city may be crumbling in more ways than one, but Mumbaikars are overjoyed with their airport. With a gleam in his eye, my cab driver into town last week did not pause at any point in his delighted description of the airport which, he believes, his city deserves and is finally getting.

There’s no denying that many visible changes have been made to the airport. The most significant change was the opening of the new Terminal 1B or what is popularly known as the Jet terminal, which happened quite early in 2007, the credit for which goes more to Airport Authority of India (AAI) than to Mumbai International Airport Ltd (MIAL).

One of the more recent changes I have been happiest with is the relief one feels when one exits the terminal. Just a few months ago, finding a cab or anyone who had come to meet you was a huge, tense challenge in the maze of people and name cards. Now, you exit, turn left for cabs and right for private cars and it all seems so civilized. A to-be-introduced outdoor food court run by HMS Host (the company that runs these in many countries globally) will soon allow you to sit and soak in the special, soft lighting the canopies offer, if you have some time to spare or someone to meet.

Last September, the airport opened its new arrival terminal with its Carlsberg green pillars and neon ads. The re-done lounge in the Jet departure terminal is very pleasant departure from what AAI passed off as a VIP lounge. The new shops added over the last many months at the same terminal will give a thrill to shopaholics who may have missed their fix in the city. The airport now has its own magazine and offers a free wi-fi service at all terminals. It even opened a foot massage and reflexology center, a first at an Indian airport.

Although the Kingfisher-Indian terminal still bears the unmistakable government-run stamp of the AAI (low ceilings, dim lighting and exhausted-looking staffers), if you arrive by any of these two airlines, the improvements are again visible. Traffic jams to reach the international airport continue to test passenger’s patience, but this May, the new-look international terminal was opened. Work on the international terminal, the airport authorities claim, will be over by December.

Though it may have been a tad slow to get off the ground, the changes at Mumbai have been swift, steady and significant (MIAL took over the airport in May 2006). GV Sanjay Reddy, the 44 year old managing director of Mumbai International Airport Ltd, who’s shifted from Hyderabad to Mumbai to oversee the project says that he realized somewhere along the way that no one cared about anything except the visible changes and people wanted changes ‘yesterday’. That’s why his entire focus was to invest in what he calls “intermittent assets”. Close to Rs 900 crore has already been spent on improving and refurbishing, all of which will eventually be money down the drain as everything that’s been done now will be demolished in due course (he says he has over 65 lakh square feet to demolish!).

But even more relevant than the visible changes is what’s not that easy to see. Traditionally, most Indian airports have earned almost all their revenues from aeronautical charges. Even in Mumbai, these accounted for 70 per cent (for the year ended March 30, 2007) of revenues. This has come down to 63 per cent by March 2008 and will fall to 58 per cent by March 2009.

This shift in revenue patterns is taking place despite a huge jump in the number of aircraft handled. When MIAL took over operations in May 2006, the average daily ATMs (air traffic movements) were 540. This went up to 650 in early 2007 and is today up to around 720. Using cross runways simultaneously, creating a few new taxiways and setting up of an automated Airport Operations Control Centre (AOCC) helped. Traffic handled by the facility is also up from 16 million when MIAL took over to 26 million last year.

On the face of it, Mumbai airport looks way ahead of Delhi but Reddy is convinced that comparisons of this kind are quite futile. He argues that when the integrated terminal in Delhi is ready, people in Mumbai will feel that Mumbai has is just about average. “When you open a new facility, people say fantastic. Then, two months later, they say it’s good. In four months, it’s just about OK. Six months later people begin to wonder what the big deal is and a few months after that, you’ll hear ‘what is this crap?’”, he says, arguing that as far as public facilities are concerned, it’s all about managing expectations. So, while he’s happy with what has been achieved today, it’s nowhere near enough and the final jewel in the crown will be Mumbai’s 4.5 million square foot integrated terminal that should be in place after 2012. Now, someone just needs to start work on the rest of the city...

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