—Sayantan Chakravarty

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The big growth story is here. Just a few months ago the T3 terminal—the world’s second largest integrated airport terminal—was opened at New Delhi’s IGI airport. At 1.2 km from end to end, it is the largest public building constructed since India gained independence from the British Empire. No mean achievement, considering that the Commonwealth Games Federation, run by the British colonial institutional mechanism, does not get its act right all the time, even after so many years of hosting the Games.

And now, the airport revolution has airlines travelers in thrall, and the big player is the AAI. World class airports are coming up everywhere, from the south in Thiruvananthapuram to New Delhi in the north. The changes are no longer cosmetic, the entire look and feel transport you to a world that is glitzy and shimmering in concrete and glass.

It was about a decade ago when the low-cost carrier concept made inroads in the aviation industry, and there was a sudden surge in the air travelling population. Naturally, with more revenues being generated at airports, the thinking was to improve their look and feel. After all, most of the airport terminal buildings in India until the turn of this century were of second world war vintage. They drastically needed a makeover. But the challenge to cope with the pressure mounted by the rising air travelling segment was enormous, the numbers were growing at a phenomenal 20 per cent annually.

As a result of the Government’s new PPP (public private partnership) policy and determination to involve more of the private sector in India’s infrastructure growth story, two of the biggest airports—Delhi and Mumbai—were largely taken away from AAI’s ambit. But the PSU continued to remain a public partner, though. Notwithstanding the slight overall setback, AAI turned to the other large airports, including the second line. In time, in addition to Chennai and Kolkata airports, 35 other metro airports were identified by the AAI with a view to making them world class. Development works at 23 of these are ongoing or complete.

Things did not always run according to plan, there were hiccups along the way. In the middle of the expansion and modernization, the global economic meltdown came as a bolt from the blue. Air travel in many parts of the world reduced, and airlines drastically curtailed operations to remain afloat in turbulent times. “It was during these trying times that we adopted our favourite maxim and ingrained it into our hearts—when the going gets tough, let the tough get going,” says AAI’s dynamic chairman V.P. Agrawal (see interview). 

Instead of getting overwhelmed by the meltdown, the AAI management decided to roll up its sleeves and meet the crisis head on. Those were tough times, and tough decisions had to be made. Cost cuttings became the norm, but never was compromising on quality and standards discussed. As air traffic slumped and revenue receipts plummeted, the AAI looked at various hitherto untapped options to maintain cash flow. 

A core group within the AAI—its primary Think Tank—started looking at ways in which to salvage the situation. It gradually became clear that the rough weather would not last very long, and that the aviation industry would see clear skies very soon. Upgrading of airports and development projects were not abandoned, only they were now done more prudently. 

With time, things improved, and India’s aviation infrastructure story is now being splashed with grandeur that one finds at the airports. No wonder, they chose to call the new terminal at Delhi, Grandeur—an awe-inspiring expanse of 5.4 square million feet, the first of its kind in Asia, and easily one of the best in the world. By all means, the AAI can afford to give itself a pat or two in the back.

NEXT >> Interview AAI Chairman V.P.Agarwal (Building India's Image)

October 2010

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