Letter from Delhi: New airport terminal is a symbol of a new India

By Emily Wax
Saturday, July 3, 2010; A10

NEW DELHI -- For years, this aspiring superpower's main international airport looked more like a congested, rundown bus station.

The low ceilings were stained with mold, fluorescent lights buzzed on and off during frequent power cuts, and the overrun bathrooms were harrowing tests of fortitude.

But that all changes Saturday when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurates a $2.8 billion terminal at Indira Gandhi International Airport, a symbol of India's economic surge ahead.

Spread over 5.5 million square feet, the glass and steel terminal can handle 34 million passengers a year. It has 92 moving walkways and 78 aerobridges connecting the boarding area directly to the aircraft. The new world-class hub is designed to support the Airbus A380, a super-jumbo jet.

"This is a huge step forward, and for India it feels like a celebration," said Kapil Kaul, who heads the Indian and Middle East arm of the Center for Asian Pacific Aviation, a consulting firm. "Terminal 3 in New Delhi is a visible symbol of the new India and our new economy. It's also a game-changing moment for India's business world. It's a momentous occasion for building confidence in our country."

Less than 1 percent of India's 1.2 billion people travel by air, Kaul said, with most in the middle and lower classes taking less expensive trains, the backbone of the country's transportation system. But the number of Indians flying is expected to reach about 165 million by 2020, he said, which would make the country's airports among the busiest in the world.

The new terminal is part of a countrywide effort to upgrade its infrastructure. There are new airports in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Mumbai, India's financial hub, which will also be opening an additional terminal by 2012. India is also improving its railways and roads.

New Delhi is undergoing a makeover to be completed by October, when India will for the first time host the Commonwealth Games, a sporting event that will bring athletes from 71 former British colonies to the capital. The city's new air-conditioned Metro is soon expected to shuttle 2 million people daily along 118 miles of track.

"We will feel such pride for the Commonwealth Games. We really needed this. But better late than never. This will resolve so many problems," said Anand P. Seth, director of the Federation of Indian Export Organizations, which has 13,000 members who export textiles, spices, gems and jewelry. "Earlier, people thought if they had to import or export to India there was a feeling of anxiety about doing business here. Now that has all vanished."

Still, the construction is not always easy for residents of this nation in transition. In neighborhoods in almost every city in India, a half-finished skyline is dotted with cranes and workers dangling on scaffolding. Below are dusty, dug-up streets, choking the roadways and turning driving into something like an elaborate video game.

Aviation experts say that many of India's more than 124 airports are in need of upgrades but that New Delhi's new terminal could become the model.

During a recent tour, the terminal had a shiny and sanitized feel, and it smelled like lemon grass. Hanging above the immigration counter are 24 giant hands sculpted in the shape of various mudras, ritual gestures in Hinduism and Buddhism, all welcoming visitors to a new India.

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