The story of Delhi airport – and does it reflect more?

There is little doubt that we are living in a country in constant flux.  Roads are always in a state of construction, de-construction, re-construction with cables hanging  precariously from leaning poles, construction is on all the time everywhere, and  when you re-visit a location in years, sometimes months and even in weeks, things have changed so much that nothing looks familiar.  The greater the activity, the more robust the economy, pulling down creates employment just as putting up does and what is pulled down is re-built etc. etc…… No where has is this hectic activity and flux been more evident than in the Delhi  airport.

I remember the times in the 50s and early 60s, when the only airport was the Safderjung airport and there were no International departures from Delhi. In fact, when my father was posted to London in 1965, we had to take the Air India flight from Bombay’s Santa Cruz. I am not sure when exactly the domestic and International airports (as they were then called), were made operational – but when I returned from London in 1966, I landed in Delhi. The trip to US in 1978 and the return in 1980 was through the International terminal  – but I saw little of the  domestic one, as air travel was far outside my league at the time. The Railway Stations were more in my beat!

Travel entitlements are strictly as per the salary brackets in the Government. When I moved to SGPGI in 1987,  I  became elevated into the hallowed bracket which was entitled  to air travel for official trips. As we were  officially entitled to attend one national conference annually and one International conference every 3 years,  the national terminus of the Indira Gandhi International airport – a simple 2 storeyed structure –  became a familiar beat. The national carrier played its monopolistic game well, with delayed flights being the rule rather than the exception,  leading to long waits and  free ‘food coupons’ at the only resturant on the first floor! Since I remember airports for their bookshops, Delhi never had a decent one at any point.

Original facade in the early 90s
Original facade in the early 90s

Then in the early 90s, came the tentative efforts of private airlines,  Sahara, Modiluft,  Damania, East-West, Jet  ( I only saw these aircrafts, never flew in them, as official travel was not permitted on these) and  the airport had to find space with the new players. The opening of the economy in 1991 and the 5th Pay Commission for those in the Government (including allowing Leave Travel by air for senior people) expanded air travel, and the departure lounge started to get crammed and suffocating. Although some of these private carriers (Modiluft, Damania, East-West) had an early death, Sahara and Jet flourished and started to attract the business traveller away from Indian Airlines. The existing  bookshop shrank and disappeared and one could get only coffee/tea from the auto-vending machines and  first floor resturant continued to service the increasing traffic.

At some point the national carrier built its own terminal, which led to some de-congestion.  The fog delays in the winter months towards the late 90s were horrendous, and an ugly front expansion was added to accomodate the waiting hordes.

3924485-Domestic_airport_DelhiAnd then Air Deccan, the first low cost carrier, arrived in 2004, making a paradigm shift in air travel. Suddenly everyone was flying.  Some temporary extensions were made, to the structure and the space available was divided into 2 separate functional areas  (1A and 1B,  1C was the IA terminal) for the regular fare carriers (Jet and Sahara) and the low fare carriers (Deccan, soon followed by Indigo, GoAir and Spicejet). I remember trying to jostle up to the check in at these counters – it was quiet a squeeze. Since the low cost carriers did not provide food ion board, (initially they were not even on sale in some of these) the only food outlet often ran out of sandwiches. Compared to 1A and 1B, 1C was luxurious and I remember the thrill when the first CCD opened there.

And then as we headed for the famous Commonwealth Games in 2010, we were promised these world class airports. There was the gradual shift of the domestic traffic to the new 1D – first only arrivals and then later departures of all the private carriers. The exclusive and privileged IA never merged with the rest of the janta though. 1D was  of manageable size and gradually as the shops opened up, the food court expanded, it became a nice airport.  It never got really crowded, and then then as promised in 2010 T3 was inaugurated and T2 (the old international terminal) was completely shut down.

Initially I believe, all the carriers were to shift to T3, since it had domestic and International sides to it. As a first move, IA and the full fare carriers (Jet, Kingfisher) moved, and the budget carriers never did. Over time, as I took the bus to the arrival hall of 1D, I saw the original building that housed 1A and 1B falling into disrepair and then being pulled down. I wonder if this has happened to T2 as well! And over the last couple of years, I am watching the gradual shrinking of the space in 1D – the arrival hall has contracted considerably,  the departure lounge has been loosing  shops.

Then last week I made  a trip to Hyderabad and was flying out of Terminal 1D after a gap of  just 2 months.  I arrived well in time for  my early morning flight, checked in, cleared security (which always has a long line at this time of day) and was looking forward to my usual egg, toast and coffee breakfast. And lo and behold, I found that the First floor Food Plaza had disappeared, as had the 2 sit down places (Fresco and something else) on the lower level. There was chaotic general sitting with counters of Costa and Fresco serving ready to serve stuff over the counter. No chance of an omlette…..And suddenly the waiting areas are not enough – it looks crowded. Is this building heading for closure?

Is it lack of planning? or is it planned this way? Is this the way to keep the economy growing? To, it reflects the hurry, the chaos, confusion and the topsy-turvy nature of our path to being ‘developed’.



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