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India urged to quickly revamp its airports

India must quickly increase capacity and improve air traffic control at the country’s two major airports to ensure safety and sustain the country’s air travel boom, the International Air Transport Association said Tuesday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

India needs to quickly increase capacity and improve air traffic control at the country’s two major airports — New Delhi and Bombay — to ensure safety and sustain the country’s air travel boom, the International Air Transport Association said Tuesday.

IATA Director General and Chief Executive Giovanni Bisignani said the association expects air travel in India to expand about 15 percent annually over the next four years, but growth could falter if the country’s airport infrastructure doesn’t catch up.

“There is an emergency situation. I really believe the government has to act very quickly, within the next one year,” Bisignani said.

The airports in New Delhi and Bombay handle 63 percent of India’s air traffic, and flights are often forced to circle in the air while waiting for a landing slot. Also, about one-third of all planes must wait at least 15 to 20 minutes after landing until getting approval to head to the terminal.

Air travel is booming in India. Several budget carriers launched in the past year are attracting first-time flyers, and officials expect there to be 50 million passengers in India by 2010 from 14 million now.

With an outdated, short-staffed air-traffic control system, the worst fear is that a signal mix-up could lead to a mid-air collision.

“I am not saying the airports in Bombay and New Delhi are not safe. But six months into the next year, you could start having safety problems,” Bisignani told reporters during a visit to New Delhi.

The state-run Airport Authority of India, which operates the airports, has invested little in upgrading infrastructure over the past eight years amid debates over whether the airports should be handed over to private managers.

Earlier this year, the government called for bids from private companies to modernize and operate the two airports. But that process, aviation experts say, could take years.

Meanwhile, Bisignani urged the government to improve the efficiency of the existing infrastructure. Otherwise, he said, the momentum seen in India’s aviation sector could be lost, especially when airlines are battling rising fuel costs.

“It would be a pity that you are limiting growth because you can’t put the infrastructure in place,” he said.