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Bangalore airport to go slow on expansion, awaits UDF clearance

Madhumathi D.S. of the Hindu Business Line reports that the 5 month young Bengaluru International Airport, which was expected to have a dream take-off on the back of phenomenal traffic growth during 2005-08, now seems to be going slow on its expansion plan in the face of a traffic decline.

“There has been a dramatic fall in monthly traffic for all airports in India since June 2008. We are currently conducting a study on the current trend and based on the results, which will be out in two-three months, we will take a decision on our next expansion plan,” the operator, BIAL, said in response to queries from Business Line.

Until a couple of months ago, BIAL CEO, Mr Albert Brunner, was hoping to take up a mezzanine expansion now and a larger Rs 3,500-crore phase 2 in early 2009 with a second terminal, pending the board’s clearance.

Bangalore’s traffic numbers, reflect the overall slowdown across the country. BIAL said, “The overall annual growth of passenger volume [at Bengaluru International Airport] has dropped to 3 per cent since June 2008” compared to an anticipated 8 per cent growth rate.

The Southern sector has been especially dented. “There has been a drop of approximately 15 per cent in the flights operating in the Southern sector (Kochi, Coimbatore, Hyderabad, Chennai) from Bangalore since May 2008. The Mumbai, Kochi, Coimbatore, Delhi, Goa, Hyderabad, Chennai and Pune routes have collectively seen a 12 per cent reduction in the number of flights,” as per BIAL sources.

The dip could also not have come at a worse time than now for BIAL, which is awaiting the Civil Aviation Ministry’s clearance to start collecting a user fee (UDF) from domestic fliers leaving the city. The UDF is one of the main revenue sources for its ambitious expansion plan.

BIAL started collecting a user fee of Rs 1,070 each from its outbound international passengers from the first day of its operations.

The May, June, July period is lean all over India, but traffic has continued declining instead of picking-up in late August and September as it does every year. Clearly the “FUD Factor” (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) of the global economic melt-down is having its effect on the psyche of India Inc.

Bangalore’s air traffic, the third highest in the country, was until a few months ago the envy of some other larger cities. BIA opened in May 24, taking over 10.1 million annual passenger traffic from the HAL airport. In fact, the traffic growth was so large and unforeseen – from 4 million in 2005 to over 10.1 million in FY 2007 – that BIAL had to insert two unscheduled expansions into first phase of the project in 2006-07, a move that pushed the project cost from the original Rs 1,400 crore to Rs 2,500 crore.

That happily poised graph has changed its course downwards. Even as BIA completed 100 days in late August, the writing was on the wall. Peak hour traffic did not grow to match the capacity, though BIA handled 2.42 million passengers, on the wing of 30 per cent rise in international airlines and air freight carriers into the city.

From 170 flights per day and 340 air traffic movements (ATMs) when it launched, BIA will now end the Summer ‘08 season with 162 flights (324 ATMs) per day. Winter ‘08 flights would see a small 1.5 per cent gain with 165 flights (or 330 ATMs). According to the operator, “Although the domestic air traffic reflects a [fall] of 1.5 per cent, the overall positive growth is due to the increased international flight operations from Bangalore.”

This is in spite of adding six new international carriers since it began services – Dragon Air, Tiger Airways, Oman Air, Air Mauritius and most recently Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways. International flights, BIA said, have increased over 230 per cent year on year for the Winter season.

BIAL said the domestic UDF, once cleared, will be part of the airline ticket cost; the airlines will collect it while issuing tickets, as directed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation. BIAL plans to set up counters to collect the fee by cash or credit card from those who have booked their tickets in advance but will be flying from the levy date.

UDF has become a double-edged sword for BIAL. They are facing the “Devil’s Alternative”. Imposition of UDF will have its impact on an already weak aviation scenario, and not imposing UDF, will have disastrous consequences on the finances of BIAL. I do not envy Mr. Brunner’s seat at this moment, he has some very delicate balancing to do, and hard choices to make.

All I can offer is my support during these tough times.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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