The year 2023 saw the highest ever domestic traffic being recorded in India. This outpaced the pre-COVID best which was recorded in 2019 and came a year ahead of IATA’s prediction of return of pre-COVID traffic by 2024.

A boy looks at Air India airline passenger aircrafts parked at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai.(Reuters)

The domestic air traffic jumped by 6% over 2019 but the growth in footfalls at airports has been uneven. Amongst the top 10 airports in the country by domestic footfalls, Kolkata, Chennai and Goa-Dabolim reported numbers which are lower than 2019, while the other seven airports saw an increase in traffic. For Kolkata and Chennai, the fall of 12% and 9%, respectively is absolute while the traffic fall by 12% at Goa-Dabolim is largely due to additional capacity being available at the new airport at Mopa, North Goa, which led to Goa as a whole seeing more traffic than ever.

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The highest growth was reported at smaller airports with very little traffic in 2019. This included places like Kalaburagi, Agra or Jagdalpur which have seen a steady increase in services leading to an increase in footfalls.

While the Airports Authority of India (AAI) declared traffic at 108 airports in 2019, the operational airports crossed 125 in 2023. However, not all have scheduled traffic because this includes airports like Begumpet, Hyderabad; HAL, Bengaluru and Juhu amongst others.

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Tourism leading

If there is one area which has consistently done well post pandemic, it is tourist destinations. “Revenge” tourism as was the norm in early days of pandemic has sustained over months. Srinagar airport saw its domestic footfall reach 1.5 times of what it saw in 2019. Chandigarh – a mix of business destinations but a gateway to Himachal Pradesh saw 64% more footfalls. Shimla, though with limited connectivity, saw its passengers footfall double. Leh saw an increase of 41% in footfalls in 2023. Traffic to Dehradun was up 20%.

Hills were not the only places to see high traffic, beaches attracted traffic too. Kerala, God’s own country, was not left behind, with capital Thiruvananthapuram recording 27% more footfalls in 2023 compared to pre-covid times. While Goa-Dabolim saw a drop in passengers, coupled with the newly inaugurated Manohar Parrikkar International Airport in North Goa, the traffic at Goa was up 35%.

Rajasthan was back with a bang on the tourist map, with Udaipur seeing a growth of 16% and Jodhpur seeing more than double the footfalls than what it recorded in 2019. The gateways to world heritage sites like Aurangabad, Khajuraho and Agra saw traffic grow 97%, 25% and eight times respectively. The high growth in Agra is due to the addition of capacity, which was capped due to environmental reasons.

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Religious places not too far behind

Amritsar – famous for the Golden Temple among other things, saw its domestic footfall grow 19%. Prayagraj saw 59% more footfalls than 2019, while Shirdi saw 32% growth. Nashik saw its traffic double, largely due to sudden addition in capacity. Airports like Dehradun cater to both hills and religious tourism.

In a country as religious as India, there is some bit of religious traffic at almost all destinations.

Top airports doing well

Delhi, the largest airport in the country, continued to perform well with 8% growth in footfalls. Mumbai, the second largest airport, clocked a 12% growth.

Bengaluru, which lags in international traffic, saw a domestic footfall growth of 14% —the highest amongst the top 10 airports while Hyderabad continued to maintain fourth position and saw a growth of 11%.

Kolkata, which lost its fourth position to Hyderabad, saw a drop of 12%, while Chennai saw a drop of 9% in domestic footfalls. Both these airports are operated by the AAI.

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Just before the onset of pandemic, the Adani group had bid and won rights to operate six airports viz. Jaipur, Lucknow, Guwahati, Ahmedabad, Trivandrum and Mangalore. The group took control of them right in the middle of the pandemic. Amongst these airports, Trivandrum saw the highest growth at 27%, followed by Mangalore at 9%. Lucknow, Jaipur and Ahmedabad saw a modest growth of 7%, 6% and 5% respectively while Guwahati grew just 2%. All of these airports are undergoing massive changes with some in the middle of construction of new terminals.

Tail note

Indian aviation has been growing from strength to strength but it has come at a cost of airlines falling apart. In 2023, the best ever year for Indian aviation saw Go FIRST suspend operations. In 2019, the previous best – saw Jet Airways go down. The market remains resilient at such times but at what cost?

As we head into another year full of capacity inductions, there already are major drivers this year. However, with the neighbourhood wooing Indians with free visas and more flights, will the Indian carriers and Indian destinations miss out? We will have to wait for sometime to know about this.

The writer is an aviation analyst

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