NEW DELHI - The vast urban sprawl in and around Delhi - known as the National Capital Region (NCR) - will soon have two major airports, expected to be the first megapolis in India to do so.
Located in the town of Jewar in Uttar Pradesh state, Noida International Airport (NIA) is scheduled to be launched in the last quarter of 2024. This is expected to relieve pressure on Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) in Delhi, which is currently India's busiest.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has dented aviation growth, the NCR region, with a population of around 50 million and its strong long-term demand for more flights, has a pressing need for a second major airport.
IGIA is expected to reach saturation point by 2030 with around 110 million passengers annually. The region currently has a second but smaller airport in Ghaziabad that handles a few regional flights.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will lay the foundation stone for the high-profile NIA project on Thursday (Nov 25). The ceremony is part of a publicity blitz featuring several infrastructure projects ahead of elections early next year in India's most populous state, where Mr Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party hopes to retain power.
Spread over 1,334ha, the airport in Jewar is being developed by Yamuna International Airport Private Limited (YIAPL), a wholly owned subsidiary of Zurich Airport International. The firm plans to open a terminal catering to 12 million passengers in the airport's first phase of development by the end of 2024.
An additional terminal will see the airport cater to around 70 million passengers annually by the end of the 40-year concession agreement that Zurich Airport International signed with the Uttar Pradesh government in October last year.
During this period, the number of aircraft movements on NIA's two runways is expected to grow from 96,400 to 489,700 per year.
Mr Daniel Bircher, YIAPL's chairman and managing director, told The Straits Times the catchment area of the NCR region is large enough for two major airports, with estimates indicating that it could account for as many as 200 million passengers by the end of the 40-year concession period.
"Delhi NCR being, I would say, one of the largest metropolitan areas on the whole planet, definitely needs additional airport capacity," he said, giving examples of other metropolises, such as London, Tokyo and Sao Paulo, that have more than one airport each.
NIA is more than 80km away from IGIA and is located off the Yamuna Expressway that connects India's capital with Agra, famous for the Taj Mahal.
The government is working on establishing a metro rail link between the two airports as well as a high-speed rail link between Delhi and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh that will pass through the airport.
The NIA project is a high-stakes one for Mr Modi's government, which wants to hasten the pace of infrastructure development in India, often held back by bureaucratic sloth and problems related to land acquisition. Progress has been relatively smooth for the project since it was cleared in 2017 with around 1,330ha acquired and earthworks and construction of boundary walls already initiated at the site.
Sustainability will be an important characteristic of the airport, with its reliance on renewable energy and an environmentally responsible building design. "Our ambition is to become net zero (in terms of emissions) as quickly as possible, ideally from the start. If that's not possible, then within a short time," said Mr Bircher.
It will also factor in easy passenger transfers as well as an integrated terminal design allowing airlines to operate an aircraft parked at a specific stand for both domestic as well as international flights without having to reposition it, leading to quicker aircraft turnarounds. The airport will target airlines that serve international destinations in West Asia, South-east Asia and parts of Central Asia.
NIA is one of several new airports being built in India, including secondary ones in Mumbai and Goa that are expected to cater to post-pandemic growth in aviation. The Navi Mumbai International Airport is also expected to start functioning around 2024 and is being developed by Adani Airport Holdings.
Mr Kapil Kaul, CEO and director of CAPA India, an aviation research and consultancy firm, believes the development of long-term airport capacity remains critical for India's aviation and economic growth.
In 2017, CAPA India said the country needed to invest up to $61.27 billion to create additional handling capacity for 500 million to 600 million passengers at its airports by 2030. "Nothing has changed (because of the pandemic), except that the need for additional capacity has been pushed back by two to three years," Mr Kaul told ST.
While international flights are still curtailed, domestic flights in India have neared pre-pandemic levels. But Mr Kaul said India's airport capacity expansion needs to be planned in a more structured manner so that it can keep pace with demand. "We need a national-level airport capacity plan - integrated with regional and state-level plans - that lasts a generation."
India's airport development projects have drawn global interest, including from Singapore's Changi Airports International, which has a 30 per cent stake in Bengal Aerotropolis Projects that is developing Durgapur Aerotropolis, a privately managed airport township, in West Bengal.