No country in the world buys as many planes as India. Its biggest airlines have ordered nearly 1,000 jets this year, committing tens of billions of dollars in an unprecedented aviation spending spree. In New Delhi, Indira Gandhi International Airport will be ready to handle 109 million passengers next year, as it prepares to become the second busiest in the world, behind Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in the UNITED STATES.
And this is happening in a vast country still heavily dependent on trains – with 20 train trips for every plane trip.
The enormous development of aviation, accompanied by an influx of investments, occupies a prominent place in India’s defense of a greater position on the world stage. As it climbs the ranks of the world’s largest economies, India is struggling to meet the growing ambitions of its ascendant middle class. Its airports have very visible achievements.
Air travel remains out of financial reach for most Indians. An estimated 3 percent of the country’s population flies regularly. But in a country of 1.4 billion people, that percentage represents 42 million executives, students and engineers who aspire to move quickly from here to there within the country’s borders. India and easier access to destinations beyond, both for business and vacation.
Kapil Kaul, managing director of CAPA India, an aviation-focused consultancy firm, believes that “the next two to three years will be crucial to achieving the quality of growth that India desires and deserves.” So far, growth has not been profitable. Indian aviation must now prove that it can make money.
The effects of this spending spree are expected to reverberate throughout the Indian economy. Cargo comes with passenger traffic, and foreign investment tends to follow closely, Mr. Kaul said.
Arrivals at Indira Gandhi Airport’s international terminal are greeted by a wall of giant sculptural hands, their fingers and palms folded in the gestures used by the Buddha, both ancient and futuristic. In 2012, when they were installed, 30 million passengers passed through the airport. By the time the airport has reached its new capacity, another will have been built from scratch on the other side of the city.
Indira Gandhi Airport is making efforts to expand. In July, it added a fourth runway and opened an elevated taxiway. The company that operates it, GMR Airports, took over in 2006, at a time when all arrivals walked past cows lazing in the dust to reach a taxi rank. In 2018, the facility was considered India’s most valuable infrastructure asset. To avoid the use of jet fuel, a battery-powered TaxiBot transports planes idling across the tarmac. An automated baggage handling system can sort 6,000 bags per hour.
Two beneficiaries of the expansion of the Indian aeronautical market are the largest aircraft manufacturers in the world: Boeing in America and Airbus in Europe. In February, Air India, which the Tata group privatized last year, agreed to buy 250 planes from Airbus and 220 from Boeing, worth a total of $70 billion. In June, IndiGo, the country’s largest carrier in terms of passengers and flights, ordered 500 new Airbus A320s.
Most of India’s aviation growth has been driven by local airlines, which have seen a 36% increase in passengers since 2022. Foreign tourist arrivals have been rebounding since the pandemic, but remain relatively rare, barely exceeding 10 million in a good year (about the same as Romania). Low-cost airlines are therefore adding new countries to their destinations in order to meet Indian demand for foreign tourism. Azerbaijan, Kenya and Vietnam are all accessible by direct flight from Delhi or Mumbai, India’s financial capital, for less than 21,000 rupees, or $250, one way.
The air corridor between Delhi and Mumbai was already one of the 10 busiest in the world. Like Delhi, Mumbai has new airport terminals that would be the envy of any American city, not to mention the beautiful new all-bamboo Terminal 2 at Kempegowda International Airport in Bangalore, a city in southern India. But infrastructure expansion is not limited to the country’s major metropolitan areas.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government likes to point out that the number of airports has doubled in the nine years since he came to power, from 74 to 148. Jyotiraditya Scindia, Mr. Modi’s aviation minister, said said there would be at least 230 by 2030. The government has invested more than $11 billion in airports over the past decade, and Mr Scindia has pledged another $15 billion.
That means sleepy towns like Darbhanga, a former principality in India’s poor eastern state of Bihar, now have direct access to Delhi, Bengaluru and beyond. For many of the 900 daily travelers who fill its flights, many from neighboring Nepal, the new airport has transformed travel.
Prasanna Kumar Jha, 52, was born in Darbhanga but works in Delhi as a tax consultant. “Who could have imagined that Darbhanga would feature on the aerial map? He asked. Flying to his hometown on short notice to see his ailing mother cost him 10,500 rupees ($126), which took a toll on him.
“But if you calculate the alternative – by train from Delhi and then by taxi to Darbhanga – it will take at least 30 hours,” he said. “Air travel is no longer a luxury but a necessity.”
Darbhanga airport is far from New Delhi airport. There is no parking. Passengers walk from the side of a highway, past a checkpoint to wait on benches outside the terminal. Then they wait on another set of outdoor benches after going through security. But it works.
Another passenger on the same flight at Darbhanga, Ajay Jha, cradled his one-year-old daughter, Saranya, as he stood near the rudimentary baggage claim area. His family was on the final leg of a journey that began in Bellevue, Washington, where he works as an engineer for Amazon, to a family reunion in rural Bihari. Traveling halfway around the world took less time than Mr. Jha spent returning from his school in Bangalore.
Yet a large majority of Indians cannot afford such amenities. The average annual income is still less than that of a single economy class ticket from the United States, and, in this top-heavy economy, most Indians earn much less than that. The middle class, in Indian language, designates a country close to the top of the pyramid.
A report by CAPA India, the aviation analytics firm, counted just 0.13 passenger seats per capita in 2019 for Indians, compared to 0.52 for Chinese and 3.03 for Americans. But Indian airlines and elected officials note the low penetration and see opportunities.
The lack of competition, amid the emergence of a duopoly between IndiGo and the Tata-led airlines, is one of the most striking features of the new landscape. Smaller competitors continue to fail, most recently Go First, which declared bankruptcy in May. A shortage of pilots, after dozens were poached by larger companies, forced Akasa Air, a promising young company, to cancel its flights in August.
But supply shortages are not the worst problem in today’s global economy. While aviation growth in the decade before the pandemic held steady at around 15% per year, the Indian boom seems almost guaranteed to change the future of aviation around the world. If the benefits enjoyed by winners in the Indian economy can trickle outwards and downwards, the same could be true for many other sectors.