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Mumbai airport upgrades runway for Airbus A380 compliance; will Emirates bring the first scheduled A380 to India?

Between October 2009 and April 2010, passengers and airlines alike, had to put up with runway closures as Mumbai Airport International Ltd. (MIAL), the operators of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA) at India’s financial capital, Mumbai, re-carpeted and re-built the secondary runway 14-32. (For details on runway numbering please read this article).

The runway now boasts a smoother surface, new centre line and Barrette approach lights. Six new taxiways including two new rapid exit taxiways have also been constructed to reduce runway occupation time and improve the operational capacity of the runway.

Mumbai VABB CSIA BOM ICAO Aerodrome Chart Airport Map
A key point of the secondary runway improvement has been to make it compliant for operations by Code F aircraft such as the Airbus A380 superjumbo. Now MIAL would like to repeat the whole exercise for the main runway 09-27.

The upgrade, subject to approval by Indian regulator the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), is planned for commencement around October 2010, and will continue till the middle of the summer schedule i.e. till about June 2011. Shutting down 09-27 is going to have a significant impact on Mumbai’s operations. However, we can expect MIAL to keep the runway operational during the peak hours of 06:00~09:00 and from 18:00 onwards.

Two aspects seem to have driven what appears to be a good decision.

Competition
Over the last year, CSIA has lost its long held premier ranking as India’s busiest airport to the rapidly expanding Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) at India’s capital New Delhi, and its soon to be operational mega Terminal 3 (T3).

While CSIA is constructing new terminals, the airport simply does not have the space to make a 500,000 m2 integrated terminal, a crucial advantage airlines desire for hub operations. As the map shows, passengers are required to take a tortuous 30 minute ride to transit between the domestic and international terminals, and there is precious little the airport operator can do about it. The national carrier, Air India, currently based at Mumbai and one of CSIA’s largest customers, has already announced plans to make Delhi’s T3 as its hub to connect the airline’s domestic and international network. Kingfisher Airlines too operates more international flights from Delhi than Mumbai. Jet Airways is the only major carrier to be still firmly rooted in Mumbai.

Additionally, while Delhi airport still faces no competition within a two hour flying time (Kolkata, Mumbai, Hyderabad) thus giving it a huge hinterland, Mumbai has seen new or upgraded airports coming up within 60~75 minutes flying time at Hyderabad, Bangalore, Ahmedabad to a small extent).

With no integrated terminal, MIAL needs to have some other aces up its sleeve to lure airlines. Without a doubt Mumbai has the traffic potential, but Mumbai is facing a shortage of air-side operational capacity, specifically its two crossing runways.

Runway capacity
Mumbai airport is facing severe capacity constraints on its runways. With its two crossing runways the number of aircraft movements per hour is limited. Vested political forces have ensured Mumbai airport has not been able to re-claim any of hundreds of acres of airport land encroached on by slum dwellers, which could be used to build new runways.

Adding to the woes of the airport operators are the regulatory authorities and the airlines.

Thanks to the current rules, the AAI run ATC can only handle about 32~34 movements per runway per hour. Compare this will the 55+ movements per hour achieved regularly at London’s Gatwick airport. People in the know, say the authorities are moving much too slow on proposals which leverage on newer technology including performance based navigation, which will permit reduction of aircraft separation which in turn will allow for increased movements per hour thus increasing runway capacity.

With a constraint on the number of flight movements, to increase annual passenger traffic from about 26 million currently to a target 40 million, Mumbai needs airlines to change the aircraft patterns.

Airlines are not helping MIAL’s case, choosing to operate multiple narrow body flights on trunk routes, instead of consolidating in to fewer wide body flights. For example, the busiest route in India is between Mumbai and Delhi. Domestic carriers operate no less than 17 flights in each direction, every morning between 06:00 and 09:00, all of them narrow bodies. The three full service carriers Air India, Kingfisher, and Jet, all of whom have wide body fleets, each operate at least four flights in each direction with separations as little at 30 minutes with either a Boeing 737 (Jet) or an Airbus A320 (Air India, Kingfisher) family aircraft. Add to this mix, numerous flights operated by smaller turbo-props like the ATR72-500 and there is very little room for the airport operators to manoeuvre.

With the number of movements limited, sooner or later, airlines are going to have to increase the size of aircraft they operate at Mumbai.

The Airbus A380
The A380, most definitely, has a strong passenger pull factor. The two airports in India capable of generating traffic volumes to justify A380 operations are Mumbai and Delhi. Till the upgrade of runway 14-32, Mumbai was loosing out to Delhi, and now this selling point of Delhi has been nullified.

Mumbai has still not received formal approval by the DGCA to commence A380 operations, but expects to shortly.

The airline most likely to commence a scheduled A380 operation at Mumbai will be Emirates. The Dubai based carrier has ordered 90 of the double-decker behemoths and already operates five flights daily between Mumbai and Dubai. Rumours are circulating the carrier is trying for a sixth daily flight, but is not receiving the needed permissions. The other airline which is keen to bring its A380 to India is Lufthansa. However, while Emirates can operate its three hour Mumbai Dubai flight on the shorter 14-32 runway, it remains to be seen if Lufthansa could operate a heavily fuelled aircraft for its ten hour journey. May be Lufthansa will have to wait for runway 09-27 to be upgraded to Code F compliance.

All this remains speculative, as the Ministry of Civil Aviation is still not giving permission to any foreign airline to operate the A380 to India. Kingfisher, the only Indian airline to have ordered the super jumbo does not expect its aircraft before 2015~16, and that it much too long for Indians to wait.

One can only hope that the ministry sees common sense, and the citizens of Mumbai can rejoice that they will see an A380 in their city soon.

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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