The Lost Hub: India’s Kolkata Airport

When you think of hub airports in India, the two that come to mind are New Delhi and Mumbai. However, there was once another major hub in India, which serviced flights from BOAC, Air France, ANA, Pan Am, and more. This forgotten hub was Kolkata, a city once considered the gateway to the East. So, what is the story of this lost hub?

BOAC Comet
BOAC used Kolkata as a stop on its London to Singapore route. Photo: Ministry of Information via Wikimedia Commons

The perfect stopover

Kolkata, previously known as Calcutta, rose to prominence in the early 1900s thanks to its strategic position at the Eastern edge of India. Its location allowed it to become a useful stopover for routes from Europe and North America to East Asia and Australia.

Notably, the American aviator Amelia Earhart passed through the airport in 1937, on the return leg of her fateful around-the-world flight. The airport was a US military base during the Second World War in 1942, acting as a base for B-24 bomber operations and as a cargo hub. The airport continued to rise in importance in the coming decades.

Kolkata Airport
Kolkata Airport was once a major stopover hub for European flights. Photo: Yuvipanda via Wikimedia Commons

The years between the 1940s and 1960s saw the airport explode in popularity as a stopover hub. The airport handled flights from Aeroflot, Alitalia, Cathay Pacific, Philippine Airlines, Pan Am, KLM, and many more. Flights from Europe to Asia in this time could have anywhere from six to ten stops along the way, due to flight range and the ability to carry more passengers.

The new era of flying

Until the 1960s, planes had no choice but to make multiple stops to refuel. The fastest flight from Hong Kong to London would take over 24 hours in the 1950s, with multiple stops on the way. The made hub airports such as Kolkata extremely important for aircraft. However, all of this changed with the introduction of the Boeing 747.

Boeing 747-100
The Boeing 747-100 cut travel times by over 50% and removed the need for multiple stops. Photo: Aero Icarus via Flickr

The introduction of the Boeing 747 revolutionized travel. Suddenly passengers could fly the London to Singapore route with one, or no stops, in half the original the time. The plane eliminated the need for multiple stopover hubs such as Kolkata along the way, paving the way for modern aviation.

A significant change

The introduction of the 747 dealt a heavy blow to the Kolkata hub. However, political conditions in the state, along with the subsequent India-Pakistan war in the 1970s, further damaged the city’s reputation. Airlines stopped using Kolkata as a stopover hub in the next few decades, reducing the airport’s prominence. The city remained a major trading center, which meant some airlines still kept direct services to the city.

Kolkata Airport
Kolkata now serves as a major domestic airport, with few international flights. Photo: Getty Images

By the early 2000s, Kolkata had lost most of its major international routes to cities such as London and was in decline. Since then, the airport has gone through a complete renovation and is now features a new, expanded terminal.

However, Kolkata airport might be regaining some of its importance in the coming years. IndiGo, the low-cost giant, is rapidly expanding operations from the airport, using it as a hub for all its East Asian routes. The carrier flies to Vietnam, Cambodia, Hong Kong, and China from Kolkata and is looking to expand. Kolkata airport itself is making a push to attract big airlines such as ANA and British Airways to resume services to the city. Kolkata might be a lost hub, but it may just find prominence once again.