NEW DELHI, India — It’s winter in New Delhi, the city is shrouded in fog and the airport is, as usual, a scene of chaos.
In what has become an annual crisis, winter fog is again crippling air traffic in and out of India’s capital, and the city’s run-down airport finds itself unable to handle the mass of frazzled and frustrated passengers crowding terminals as flight after flight is canceled or delayed.
“Bad weather is understandable, but there is no system in place here to take care of waiting passengers,” said Nyena Ravi, 23, a software engineer from the southern city of Hyderabad. She was killing time in one of three large tents set up outside the domestic terminal for people whose flights have been canceled — a crowd that on some days numbers in the thousands.
The tents and other Band-Aid measures taken nearly every winter by authorities to overcome the airport disarray highlight how India’s outdated terminals are struggling with an upsurge in fliers as the number of domestic airlines grows with India’s expanding middle class, and the country attracts more foreign tourists and business travelers.
India’s airports handled 51 million domestic passengers in the fiscal year that ended March 31, up 28 percent from the previous year. There were also 22 million international passengers during the same period, a rise of more than 15 percent from the previous year, according to the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, an consulting firm in Sydney, Australia.
The big jump in domestic passengers is largely due to the rise of new airlines, many of them no-frills low-cost carriers, since India began liberalizing its economy in the early 1990s.
Where there was one carrier, Indian Airlines, now there are 11 — and they keep adding flights. Since Air Deccan, for example, started service about three years ago its schedule has grown from 420 flights a day to 1,200.
Meanwhile, the number of foreign carriers flying in and out of India has more than a tripled since the early 1990s, and there are nowadays nearly 40 international airlines landing here.
But India’s halfhearted attempts to improve its airport infrastructure — a refurbished terminal here, a new runway there — have not kept pace.
The results are clear at New Delhi’s crowded Indira Gandhi Airport, where one domestic and one international terminal share a pair of runways. It was designed for 12 million passengers a year, but now handles more than 16 million.
The congested skies above the airport result in regular delays that average about 45 minutes, said K. Sivanandan, a spokesman for India’s Jet Airways, adding that most airlines here now impose a surcharge of $3 per ticket to pay for fuel used while the planes circle the airport.
Delays pile up quickly, as do passengers waiting for flights. The lucky ones get hard plastic seats, the unlucky stand or sleep on the floor. At the domestic terminal there’s a single magazine stand, and a place to get tea, but not much else. The international terminal is only marginally better, with a grim snack bar, a Subway sandwich stand and a few duty free shops selling the usual assortment of alcohol, cigarettes and electronics.
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The situation is especially bad in the winter because most of India’s domestic airlines don’t have pilots and planes equipped for takeoff and landing in the thick fog that envelops the city for much of the season. Flights can be delayed for days.
“I’ve already spent two days stuck here. I need to get back to work,” said Ravi, the 23-year-old engineer.
The crowded skies have also raised safety fears. In 2005, the latest data available from India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation, there were 21 near-misses of mid-air collisions, up from 15 a year ago.
The story of India’s airports is part of a larger tale of how poor infrastructure dogs India’s growth. Across the country, roads, railways, power, and water supplies are in various stages of disrepair.
The Confederation of Indian Industry, a leading business group, said in a study last year that India needs to invest $330 billion in infrastructure over the next five years to keep the economy growing at its current annual rate of 8 percent.
But India spends only about $36 billion a year on infrastructure development — about half what experts say it needs, and much less then neighbor and economic rival China.
“We’ve been behind the loop on infrastructure for a very long time,” said economist Saumitra Chaudhuri, a member of the economic advisory council to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Two decades ago, “when the economy was growing at around 3 percent, it didn’t make such a difference,” he said. “Now that we’re growing at a faster rate the loopholes are glaring.”
Privatization and public-private partnerships are seen as one of the fastest ways to solve India’s airport problems.
Last year, after many delays, the government turned over the modernization of New Delhi’s and Mumbai’s airports to two private consortiums. Technology hubs Bangalore and Hyderabad are both building new airports.
Delhi International Airport Private Ltd., the consortium including Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport and the Airport Authority of India, plans to build new runways and swanky terminals in New Delhi by 2010. The $1.5 billion project will increase passenger capacity to 37 million.
But critics say it may be too little too late.
The government needs additional airports in major cities, not just improvements for existing ones, says G.R. Gopinath, the owner of Air Deccan. He pointed out that most of the world’s major cities have more than one airport; London has five.
“The government needs to start putting in a second and third airport on a war footing before they start exceeding the capacity at even the new airports,” he said.
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