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View: Global cuisine and marquee brands needed to make Indian airports global transit hubs

In the second half of 2023, IndiGo, the country’s largest carrier, expanded rapidly on foreign shores. This includes its first foray to Africa, along with flights to former Soviet Republics – some of which never had connectivity with India. IndiGo moved from being a point to point carrier to a network carrier many years ago. Its expanding network saw the airline offer multiple connections via its top metros in India to connect to Tier-II cities. IndiGo wants to play the same game on international routes, albeit at a different altitude. In this case, the airline wants to vie for a pie of the international to international connections, connecting passengers from Jeddah or Bahrain to Jakarta and Tashkent or Tbilisi to Bangkok.

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

The transit is currently largely driven at Delhi—the country’s largest airport and Mumbai—the second largest airport. In FY19-20, Air India saw 3.56 million passengers transit at Delhi as compared to 1.42 million at Mumbai. For IndiGo, the numbers were 6.28 million at Delhi and 4.52 million at Mumbai in the same year, shows data released by GMR Airports – a listed entity. The numbers for IndiGo are nearly double of Air India at Delhi and thrice at Mumbai.

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The traffic at Delhi has largely been driven by reducing the International to International connection times from 90 minutes in 2010 to 60 minutes now, making the transfer at par with any other hub in the region. But there is one difference, the hubs in the neighbourhood be it at Dubai, Singapore, Bangkok or Doha are largely driven by full service carriers – some of which are known for their elaborate service and experience.

Also read: From Bali to Baku, the expansion of Indian airlines will tell you where Indians are travelling

Compare that to the service of IndiGo, which faced quite a few mid-air arguments due to lack of meals and the airline has stayed away from having ovens in their flights subsequently meaning the lack of hot meals on offer. There is a market for everything one would argue and on the basis of costs, IndiGo is already making the hub work. What happens to the food options then

A hub which feeds everyone

A hub is not an airline or airport specific effort, it is a joint effort and beyond the airside infrastructure and faster connectivity lies the ancillaries and experience – which is the food, duty free and rest areas.

The wow factor of the airport which one is imbibed upon for Singapore Changi or Dubai needs to be replicated at Delhi (and Mumbai) for passengers to have a transit at Indian airports Instagrammable, in present times! The start though has to be with food. With the food on offer in IndiGo flights not exactly local to the countries to which it is catering, the airports should take it upon themselves to add outlets which cater to food choices of nationalities which are transiting the most.

A look at Delhi Airports website shows 25 outlets for food at International departures. The website does not list the operational hours of the outlets, but it is largely safe to assume that most would be operational 24 x 7 considering the nature of the airport. The outlets range from Coffee shops serving snacks to Indian cuisine like Idli, curries, Paratha and Street food. The limited international options include McDonalds, Dominoes or KFC – most of which have become indianised over the last couple of years. The options are even less at Mumbai, where the International departures are restricted to a lot of local flavours and coffee shops.

Compare this with a Dubai or Singapore and one would find some of the most well known, top and known brands along with a plethora of cuisine on offer which includes European, Asian, Indian as well as local catering to various dietary and religious needs of travellers.

Also read: In 2023, domestic aviation soared due to religion and tourism

This actually opens up an opportunity for the airports to attract international brands and international cuisine. These are not restricted to transit passengers. Indian passengers have become global over the years, warming up to new tastes, aware of global cuisine and brands. There also remains the perennial issue of passengers taking to social media for comparing a staple Indian meal item like an Idli for its high and inflated prices at the airport. Global cuisine and brands take away that possibility to some extent, if not completely. Bengaluru’s iconic T2 has attracted quite a lot of foreign brands but handles a fraction of traffic of what Delhi handles.

Numbers are favourable

In Q1-FY24, Delhi airport earned INR 7 billion revenue from non-aero sources. The largest chunk of this came from Retail and Duty Free. The Food & Beverage revenue comprised just 9% or INR 612 million, but the growth was splendid at 38% YoY. Food industry has been growing favourably across the country, despite the shift towards healthier eating habits.

All in all, the absence of varied cuisine on-board and the need for a quick munch in transit and flights that span between four and seven hours with limited menu is a perfect recipe for airports to work aggressively towards getting a 24×7 food court with global cuisine and marquee brands, which will in turn attract passengers to transit via India. What more? Passengers will happily pay a few hundred rupees for a new cuisine and the airport will have fewer complaints as against the current environment where idli and dosa are sold at over 300 rupees a plate attracting negative publicity.

Ameya Joshi is an aviation analyst.

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