Mumbai handles record 980 flights in a day – but little reason to cheer

Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, which recently gained the distinction of being the world's busiest single-runway airport, recently broke the world record by handling 980 flights in the space of 24 hours.

On 20 January, the second-largest airport in India handled 980 arrivals and departures in a time span of 24 hours. It broke its previous record of handling 974 flights in a single day, According to a Times of India report.

In March 2017, the Mumbai airport created a world record by handling an average of 837 flights a day or one every 65 seconds in fiscal 2017, overtaking London's Gatwick airport that managed 757 flights a day. It later went on to break its own record with 969 flights in November and 974 in December 2017.

Of course, what this really points to is the crying need for a second airport for Mumbai. The Navi Mumbai airport has long been in the planning but is moving at a glacial pace, with minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha saying last week it would take another four or five years to become operational – thereby contradicting Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who had proclaimed it would be ready by the end of next year (See: Navi Mumbai airport may take another 4-5 years to get going: Sinha).

Mumbai airport had 4.5 crore passengers in FY17, which was about 18.6 per cent of the total air traffic in the country. The airport, which is run by the GVK Group arm Mumbai International Airport Ltd, is connected with 95 domestic and international destinations. Delhi airport, which has three parallel runways, handled 5.7 crore passengers in the same year (21.6 per cent of the air traffic).

Mumbai airport actually has two runways but they intersect each other, and because of this the only one can be used at a time. The 12,008-foot runway was built to handle 46 take-offs and departures in one hour. But it has often witnessed more than 50 movements in an hour.

Gatwick airport in London remains the most efficient single-runway airport in the world with a declared capacity of handling 870 flights in a day. While the Mumbai airport works round the clock, Gatwick airport functions for only 19 hours after authorities imposed restrictions on flights after midnight in 1971.

There can be no comparison between Mumbai and Gatwick for other reasons as well. Mumbai airport is struggling with an acute shortage of space, while London is served by four airports - Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton. While Heathrow has two functional runways, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton have one each.

''Mumbai airport functions in a space-starved, infrastructure-constrained environment unlike any other. More flights can't be added onto Mumbai's single runway without a holistic approach that takes into account the ground realities, India's regulatory framework, human factors etc,'' The Times of India quoted the airport's spokesperson as saying.

He added that the shortage of space is felt most when there is any emergency. Many flights were sent to Bengaluru and Hyderabad last September after a SpiceJet aircraft overshot the main runway forcing its closure. ''Most of the wide-bodied aircraft operating long haul international flights were forced to divert to Hyderabad and Bangalore, where a dearth of aircraft parking bays posed a problem,'' the official said.