Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGI) is the busiest airport in India, catering to over 67 million passengers every year. However, the airport has a long aviation history, dating back to the 1930s. Let’s dig into the past of IGI Airport and its rise to the busiest in India.
Indira Gandhi International Airport traces its beginnings back to the erstwhile Palam Airport. Palam first began as a Royal Air Force base during the Second World War, serving British war efforts in Asia and beyond. After India’s independence, Palam continued to serve as an Indian Air Force base until the government decided to change its purpose due to the rise of commercial aviation in India.
In 1962, Palam Airport officially became a passenger airport. At first, the airport could process a maximum of 1,300 passengers an hour, catering to the limited domestic and international flights. However, the airport was expanded soon after, with a new terminal being constructed and completed in 1969 at the cost of ₹900,000 ($123,300) at the time, according to BusinessLine.
Palam Airport continued to grow dramatically in the years that followed its expansion. The 1970s saw the rise of long-haul travel and more international travel. Air India has historically been based out of New Delhi, flying the Boeing 747 to cities like London and beyond. Foreign airlines like Pan Am also entered India, putting Delhi at the center of the action.
However, as air traffic boomed in India, Palam Airport was struggling to keep with the traffic. This meant the airport was ready for another expansion, and along with it, a rechristening.
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In May 1986, a new terminal was constructed (Terminal 2) and Palam Airport was officially renamed Indira Gandhi International Airport. The airport is named after the former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who died in 1984. With two active terminals, IGI had a much-needed capacity boost to see it through the coming decade.
Terminal 2 served as the new hub for international flights, while Terminal 1 continued its role as the primary domestic airport. These roles were reprised for over two decades and Delhi continued to only have these two hubs until 2010.
However, aviation demand has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. Terminals 1 and 2 were overwhelmed by the early 2000s, with T1 handling 45% more passengers than its capacity. With more airlines serving India, T2 began filling up quickly too, with a need for more modern facilities.
Two decades after Terminal 2 opened its doors to travelers, Delhi once again needed a bigger and better airport for the growing passenger numbers. This time, the government opted to hand over the management and construction of the airport to a private group, with the contract being awarded in 2006. This marked the beginning of Terminal 3.
The construction of Terminal 3 took place from 2006 to 2010, taking just over three years in total. Led by the GMR Group and Fraport, T3 has the capacity to cater to 34 million passengers every year. While this is lower than other major airports globally, it is a significant increase from T1 and T2’s capacity.
T3 opened its doors in July 2010, a full 24 years since Delhi had a new terminal. This marked the closure of T2 for renovations and the new terminal became the exclusive one for all international departures and arrivals. In addition to international services, select airlines also moved their domestic operations to T3, including Air India.
Terminal 3 has gone on to win several accolades for its service and design, elevating its global status as a hub. While the terminal can quickly become crowded as traffic increases, it is undoubtedly far better than IGI’s older offerings.
While IGI Airport might be one of the best in South Asia, its staggered development means that it faces several issues. One major problem has been with connectivity between terminals. There is no airside connectivity between Terminals 1, 2, and 3. This means passengers must clear immigration to step on to most domestic flights.
Even if one chooses to clear immigration, inter-terminal transport is limited, with only a bus service running between the three terminals. While T2 and T3 are fairly close, reaching T1 can take 15 minutes on a normal day and longer with traffic. With no centralized airport planning and construction, Delhi struggles to offer the easy connectivity seen at other major airports globally.
Currently, IGI Airport is operating all three of its terminals. T2 reopened in 2017 as a domestic terminal after undergoing extensive renovations since 2010. Meanwhile, T1 (once known as Palam) continues to handle domestic flights while T3 maintains international connectivity. However, this doesn’t mean expansion activities aren’t underway.
Indira Gandhi International Airport is currently in the midst of completing its fourth runway, considerably increasing capacity. The fourth runway could be operational as soon as September 2021, doubling the capacity of T1 in the short run, according to Hindustan Times. Located next to T3, the new runway can handle Code F aircraft like the A380 and 747.
While air traffic fell by nearly 67% in 2020, Delhi expects to rebound fairly quickly. To this end, IGIA plans to expand its capacity to 100 million passengers by 2022 and eventually 140 million. This would be double the highest capacity on record and will ensure that Delhi Airport is finally future-proofed for the first time in its history.
Have you ever flown out of IGI Airport? What were your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!