Suggestion – Slot allocation at Civil Enclaves in India

Indian Aviation is unique but when this argument goes global, the aviation scene is compared with markets similar to India. More often than not, all fast growing markets get classified together – Indonesia, India, Kazakhstan and so on.  Cheap Fares, Congested Airports, booming passenger Numbers – the markets show similar trends.

One of the reasons of uniqueness in India is the different types of airports in the country.From the greenfield ones like Bengaluru & Hyderabad, Kochi – where landholding was converted to shareholding to construct the first private airport in the country, Delhi & Mumbai which saw private players form Joint Venture to redevelop and expand, Kolkata & Chennai – where state owned Airports Authority of India redeveloped the projects. All combinations of airport construction projects seem to have been covered.

There is another type – those operated by the armed forces – Indian Air Force and Indian Navy. These are airports which are owned by the armed forces sees the Airports Authority of India maintain terminal, apron space and provide city side services. The runway, Route Navigation, Air Traffic Services are all under the control of Armed Forces.

Of the approximately 80 airports that are operational in the country, staggering 22 are civil enclaves. This includes larger cities like Pune, Chandigarh and Goa. Most of these airports have limited operating window. For example – Pune does not have any movement from 0800 – 1030 hours six days a week and is closed for routine maintenance from 1100 – 1700 every Saturday. Goa sees halt of civil operations from 0830 to 1300 and 1530 to 1630 hours each day. Chandigarh is closed at night. All three are in top 20 by domestic passenger traffic in India.

Uniqueness of Civil Enclaves

The airports which have civil enclaves were built as military airfields – which means most or all of them do not have runway centerline lights. Many of them have safety net at both ends of the runways, parallel taxiway may not be present increasing runway occupancy time. Few of the airbases are also frontline or major fighter airbases which see restriction in air space leading to delays in takeoff and landing of civilian aircraft.

However, one thing has to be taken in consideration that these airfields are primarily built for and operated by the armed forces and while joint use is a great idea, they can never be considered and compared with regular civil airfields as it could severely impact National security.

Growth at Civil Enclaves & Ways to tackle it

Over the years civil enclaves have come a long way. From a sunrise to sunset station just over a decade ago, Pune sees congestion even during the late night hours. The apron has expanded from a small 4 bay apron to a larger 8 bay apron with power in – push back bays and 2 aerobridges. Chandigarh & Goa have also seen new terminals take shape.

The National Civil Aviation Policy of 2016 links a lot of proposals to deployment of seats in domestic skies. The primary amongst them is the ability to fly international. Before the unrest started in Srinagar, airlines were struggling to add more flights to Srinagar – an airport which has seen over 35% growth in the last year in terms of domestic passengers. There were news reports that airlines are lobbying hard to increase the cap of 6 movements per hour.

With limited slots available and new slots given without any specific logic or rules in place, how should airlines get slots? Can it be a system of waiting list? No, it will be unfair to the newer players. Can the slots be linked to new destinations? It may not always work. Can it be linked to something else?

After some research, I thought of proposing this model for allocation of slots at congested airports controlled by armed forces having a civil enclave of AAI.

Proposal

The slots should be linked to the Departures by an airline in domestic skies. More the domestic flying of an airline, more number of slots the airline should get at such airports. While an even appropriate approach could be to link it to ASKs (Available Seat Kilometers), for the sake of simplicity the proposal benchmarks it against departures. Also, if it is linked to ASKs, it will have to be linked to ASKs of new departures making it difficult for the airlines to launch new destinations.

Seven airlines operate scheduled services to Pune. National carrier Air India and its subsidiaries had 122,706 departures in 2016, which averages to 2347 departures per week. 36 of these departures were from Pune each week, which is just 1.5%. India’s largest carrier by market Share IndiGo has 153 departures from Pune, having a share of 2.9% of its total departures. The same ratio is 3.1% for Jet Airways, 5.5% for Go Air and 3% for Spicejet.

The Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA) recently raised the issue of non-FIA airlines (Air India, Vistara and AirAsia India) getting slots in Pune. The two airlines owned by Tata’s sees this ratio being 5.5% and 7% respectively. However to be fair to the newer airlines, this cannot be counted against the yearly average since they got the additional slot much later in the year and the average of departures will not reflect correctly.

Thus calculating the same ratio considering departures for December and mapping shows that the ratio is as below.

Go Air and Air Asia India operate 5.1% of total departures out of Pune while Air India operates the lowest just 1.7% out of Pune. Vistara – which started its second flight to Delhi in January is clearly below the average even when its second flight is considered in the calculation.

As the greenfield airport at Pune gets dragged on and any chances of having an operational airport by 2020 looking slim by the day, the pressure to release additional slots in Pune will mount for the Indian Air Force and in such times, is this the right method to allocate additional slots? The airlines reading this can see the merit and take it forward with the authorities. It will not only benefit the airlines but also the fliers from these cities.

This also helps the airline plan in advance of when it would get additional slots at airports like Pune and will not be forced to cancel some other service because an elusive slot in Pune is suddenly available.

As a longtime resident of Pune, I can only hope that there is a new airport which comes up soon and till then additional flights start from Pune to help lower the airfare and let more passengers travel, without compromising the operational readiness of Indian Air Force.

Over to the Ministry, Air Force and Airlines. . .

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