Mumbai: As per to the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA), India's Civil Aviation Ministry has even more aggressive plans than the Chinese, who themselves have aggressive plans to develop 43 new airports by the end of 2010, for a total of 190, increasing to 244 by 2020.
The Indian Civil Aviation Ministry has an aim of 500 operational airports by 2020, including the redevelopment of currently unused airports and development of greenfield airports and so-called 'merchant' (dedicated cargo/logistics) airports.
India presently has 448 airports, including small landing strips, although only 80 airports in the country currently handle scheduled services (up from 60 in Mar 2006). Of these airports, 136 belong to defence establishments and agencies, 156 to state governments and 63 to the private sector.
Unlike China, where just 60 per cent of the population lives within 100 km of an airport, in India, virtually every district has an airport (includes landing strips) and can, in theory, be connected by air. This fact was one of the drivers of the optimism with which low cost carriers (LCCs) established in India.
Like China, air traffic is concentrated at a few key airports in India. The 24 international and customs airports put together account for 94 per cent of traffic and the balance is spread over 36 smaller airports.
For the 500 airports target to be achieved in a little under 13 years, India will require a very liberal aviation policy, backed by an aggressive programme to upgrade existing small airports, says CAPA.
But it does have advantages over China, with so many airport sites in existence, the presence of an active investor community and a local (state) government system more familiar with airport management and control. China's airports, on the other hand, were transferred from central to local government control only four years ago.
State governments in India are expected to drive the airport development process in coming years, to seize the opportunities presented by air services development. So the role of the Airports Authority of India in this area will diminish. This change will be reflected in the new aviation policy of the central government, to be released shortly.
India is expected to have extensive greenfield airport activity in the period until 2020, including the development of several dedicated merchant airports. Some of the currently unused airports will be converted into functional low cost airports with the involvement of the private sector and the LCCs themselves.
The Andhra Pradesh government, for example, has already issued a request for proposal (RFP) for the development of airports in Tadepallegudam, Ramagundam, Kurnool, Ongole, Bobbili, Nellore, Kothagudam, Nizamabad and others. Other state governments, like Karnataka and Maharashta, have also identified as many as 15 airports for development.
Airport development in India will therefore be largely a private sector play in the near future, says CAPA.
On balance, India has a better chance than China in achieving its ambitious 2020 airport development plans.
If it does, India could have twice as many civil airports as its more populous neighbour.