MUMBAI • India's airports are struggling to cope with a massive surge in passenger numbers, and billions of dollars must be spent to boost their capacity, analysts have warned.
The country is witnessing a huge boom in air travel as its growing middle class increasingly takes to the skies, but experts say the infrastructure is failing to keep up.
"There's an urgent need for capacity building in major Indian airports as they are bursting at the seams and close to saturation," said Mr Binit Somaia, South Asia director at the Sydney-based Centre for Aviation (Capa).
The country has witnessed a sixfold increase in passenger numbers over the past decade as citizens take advantage of better connectivity and cheaper fares, thanks to a host of low-cost airlines.
Indian airports handled 265 million domestic passengers in 2016 and the figure this year will cross 300 million, according to Capa. The country's entire airport network is capable of handling only 317 million passengers, it says.
According to data compiled by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, an Indian regulatory body, there were just 44 million Indians travelling by plane in 2008.
Now Capa predicts that India will overtake Britain as the world's third-largest market by 2025 and will have 478 million air travellers by 2036.
Aviation experts say the government faces a race against time to build the infrastructure to handle the soaring congestion.
Number of Indians travelling by plane in 2008.
Projected number of air travellers in India by 2036.
"Some top airports have reached saturation. In the next five to seven years, the top 30 to 40 airports in India will be performing beyond their capacity," said Mr Somaia.
Flights have increased by around 20 per cent every year over the past three years, stretching many airports to breaking point.
Travellers can snap up tickets sometimes for as little as 1,000 rupees (S$20) - cheaper than many fares on the country's rickety train network. Ten Indian airports - including Dehradun, Jaipur, Guwahati, Mangalore, Srinagar and Pune - are already operating beyond their capacity, Capa said in a report released last month. Others are nearing their limit.
The aviation body predicts that Indira Gandhi International Airport in the capital New Delhi and Chennai International Airport will reach their handling capacity within four to six years.
The situation is even more pressing at Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport (CSIA). Capa says the airport is at 94 per cent capacity and is "close to saturation".
Earlier this year, the airport said that it had broken its own world record for handling the most number of arrivals and departures on a single runway in one day. About 980 flights landed and took off within a 24-hour period.
Domestic travellers flying into India's financial capital regularly complain about flights having to circle for up to half an hour before the plane is given a slot to land.
CSIA is surrounded by slum settlements, making it almost impossible to increase the number of runways and highlighting the problem of acquiring space for infrastructure projects in India's heavily congested cities.
The government is building a new airport at Navi Mumbai, 30km away, to ease the burden. Work has been repeatedly delayed because of land disputes and the airport is now scheduled to open in 2023.
"The situation at CSIA will worsen until the new airport is operational," said Mr Amber Dubey, India head of aerospace and defence at global consultancy KPMG, describing the delays as "unacceptable".
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made making air travel accessible to all a key priority since his election in 2014. He recently launched a scheme to connect remote regions of the country by air.
In the nation's Budget last month, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allocated US$613 million (S$806 million) to the Airports Authority of India to expand facilities.
Capa estimates that India needs to invest US$45 billion by 2030 to keep up with demand.
"The government needs to ensure that we have the infrastructure to manage the growth rate," said PwC infrastructure expert Manish Agarwal.