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Vol. XXXIV No. 1, April 16-30, 2024

Bigger not always better – Can Chennai Airport convert features into strengths?

-- by Varsha V.

JetArena – a handle on X (formerly Twitter) that covers news and insights from Indian Aviation – recently announced that FlyDubai airline will stop operations between Chennai and Dubai from mid-May, opting instead to ply flights between Kochi and Dubai. The update recalls the media coverage earlier this year which stated that the Chennai airport is seeing a decline in the number of flights owing to Bengaluru and Hyderabad stealing patronage both domestic and international. In a quote to The Hindu earlier in February, aviation expert Govindarajan Bashyam pointed out, “While building a second airport is the key to drastically improving the economy of the State, the interim solution is to optimally utilise the existing space, which can be done by a private operator. There are many incentives that private operators in Bengaluru and Hyderabad are able to provide to draw in airlines. Also, we can take a leaf out of the book of brownfield airports, such as Delhi and Mumbai, and make that success a reality here as well.” The recommendation to privatise is perhaps a subject for debate, but there’s no contesting the implicit claim that the Chennai airport – reported to handle 18 million passengers a year – is not making efficient use of the current property. While the city awaits its new terminal over the next two years, there appears to be no reason why improvements cannot be undertaken to boost passenger experience in the current facility by leveraging its inherent strengths – location and size.

The existing Chennai airport is located plumb in the city, a claim that not many metros can make. It has fantastic connectivity to public transport such as the metro and bus lines, and is easier to access from within the city. If autorickshaws – presently not permitted near the terminal and stopped at the gate – can be allowed at pick-up and drop-off points like taxis are, it will serve to ease accessibility for all passengers and visitors. Further, large airports such as those in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore are sprawling facilities that are not particularly friendly in terms of mobility – flyers and visitors are often forced to walk long distances, an especially arduous task for senior and vulnerable citizens. Being smaller, the Chennai airport has great potential to build on accessibility as a forte – passenger movement within entails comparatively shorter distances, an advantage that is often overlooked. Ramping up infrastructure in this regard can do wonders to heighten the passenger experience. Take aerobridges, for instance. The Chennai airport currently has only 13, of which a mere four are suitable for international flights. This particular lack is being addressed – the airport will reportedly get nine new aerobridges by 2025 to facilitate the operations of international flights. In fact, the Chennai airport can stand a cut above the rest by offering passengers the benefits of speed and convenience, if only it can tackle congestion and passenger wait times. Happily much is in the offing in this regard.

In terms of operational improvements, the airport has reportedly resumed simultaneous operations of the main and secondary runways after a period of roughly six years. It is said that this will help ease air traffic congestion and cull delays in flight departure, especially during the peak early morning hours between 6 am and 9 am. Digi Yatra, which ­enables contactless and seamless passenger movement through checkpoints with the aid of facial recognition technology, will soon be available for use. With more and more passengers willing to use ­biometrics to expedite ­procedures, this is a good move. The domestic terminal has also recently launched a Self-Baggage Drop facility to help fast-track departure procedures. The new facility removes the need to wait at check-in counters to drop off baggage and stands to save passengers a lot of time. In addition to the already ­existing theatre and multi-level parking lot, Phase 2 of the new integrated terminal has plans to open a mini hotel for the benefit of international passengers – those who face long transit times would be able to relax before the connecting flight is open for service. 

A lot of thought has clearly gone into enriching the passenger experience. As always, one hopes that the authorities do not miss the wood for the trees and accord equal importance to maintaining existing facilities as well. The bathrooms inside the terminal require attention as do other passenger infrastructure such as seating and luggage trolleys. A ­twin-pronged approach of maintenance and enhancement can provide the Chennai airport advantages that are hard to compete against.

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