India’s growing domestic air traffic has presented challenges in air and ground infrastructure that were not faced five years ago. Already, significant pressure on air traffic management (ATM) and airport infrastructure is being felt, with mounting concerns over safety on the ground and in the air, due to congestion.
The rise of budget carriers and pressure to open remote and underserved airports under the Regional Connectivity Scheme has many mid-sized airports already running close to full capacity. Airports Authority of India (AAI) has 125 airports, of which 50 are being upgraded, an uphill but urgent task. AAI’s corporate plan for the period 2017 to 2026 focuses on streamlining operations and adopting global benchmarks through new technology, to ensure efficiency and cost effectiveness. This is being done through increasing adoption of biometric, face recognition, and body-scan technology to speed operations.
Speaking on airport and ATM infrastructure, particularly with reference to Mumbai, Jakarta, Bangkok, Mexico City, and New York City facing bottlenecks, Alexandre de Juniac, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said recently, “We need capacity to meet demand; airports must be aligned with user needs for quality and technical specifications.”
India's Regional Connectivity Scheme has led to the opening of remote and underserved airports, but even this is not enough. An “ambitious” corporate plan “defines how we will be successful within a challenging and changing aviation environment,” said Guruprasad Mohapatra, chairman of the AAI. He said AAI’s $450 million plan over the next five years was set up to upgrade technology. “For this, the air traffic flow management system is a forward-looking technology application by which a real-time link of all the surveillance and navigation systems will show aircraft operating throughout the Indian airspace on a large screen display at AAI’s ATM center.”
Another move is that instead of constructing new air traffic control (ATC) towers at every airport, AAI is set to procure mobile towers to remotely manage flight operations at different airports. AAI is also developing a number of airports as no-frills to reduce operating costs and to make flying a viable option for more people. “The no-frills airports would limit or avoid costs of services and activities that are not necessarily crucial for airport operations and that would allow the costs to be kept at the lowest possible level," Mohapatra said.
As skilled people become increasingly scarce, India’s new remote towers will prove beneficial. “We see a great interest from both small and large airports that have a need for remote tower services. This system contributes toward greater efficiency,” said Håkan Buskhe, president and CEO of Saab (Stand D11). Remote tower services employ cameras and sensors at airports sending signals in real time to air traffic control centers where images from the remotely controlled airports are displayed on TV monitors.
To make the skies safer, India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) last year amended the procedure for obtaining permission for import or acquisition of aircraft to include mandatory installation of GPS-aided GEO augmented navigation (GAGAN), the world’s fourth satellite-based augmentation system (SBAS), on aircraft imported after Jan. 1, 2019. The rule is not applicable for aircraft already delivered.
GAGAN does not depend on ground navigation infrastructure at airports and heliports, reduces the decision height for GPS-aided instrument approaches, and provides accessibility to more airports for much lower cost in poor weather conditions. It allows aircraft to fly instrument approaches with vertical guidance with no need for ground navigation aids. Lower priced on-board avionics equipment can be used to fly these approaches, and according to some analysts SBAS could be an answer to opening up unserved or underserved regional airports.
AAI provides air navigation services across all civil airports in India. It manages Indian airspace covering more than 2.8 million square nautical miles, which includes a land area measuring 1.05 million and oceanic airspace measuring 1.75 million square nautical miles, extending beyond the territorial airspace into the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal.
The government has granted “in principle” approval for setting up 18 greenfield airports in the country. In addition, focus is on neglected hilly states in the northeast region, where AAI plans to develop airports. The region shares 98 percent of its borders with China and southeast Asian countries.
Guwahati in the state of Assam has been selected to be an intra-regional hub and gateway from India to the neighboring countries of Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, all of which are within short flying distances of around 45 to 60 minutes. The design for the $172 million terminal at Guwahati airport, for which U.S.-based Aecom has been appointed as project management consultant, has already been approved. The project includes a parallel taxiway, two hangars for narrowbody aircraft, and extension of the runway to 10,000 feet.