Thursday, March 21, 2019

Travel Retail at Regional Airports

I am seated at Madurai Airport and my Spicejet to Chennai is delayed by 55 mins. It’s a swanking new terminal built a few years ago when the local heavyweight MK Alagiri, (eldest son of Late M. Karunanidhi, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu) was an MP in the UPA Cabinet. Being his hometown, he pushed for this infrastructure development a decade back when the DMK was a key ally of the UPA led Congress Government between 2004 - 14. That was when Bangalore & Hyderabad came up with new greenfield airports while Mumbai and Delhi had a massive makeover – all four now being run by private partners. While the UPA Government selectively upgraded regional airports, the present Modi Government led by BJP along with NDA allies has given a further push to unlock aviation opportunities at over 40 unused airports under the ambitions UDAN – Udega Desh ka Aam Nagrik (Common man will fly). 


The Prime Minister inaugurated the Gangtok Airport recently, unveiling a host of opportunities for tourism to the Eastern hill state of Sikkim (although excessive tourism is a bane for ecology, but I will save this for another article) along with numerous airports across India taking the tally of operational airports in India to 100. A further 50 airports are yet to take off even as many airlines have wound up operations at some of these airports due to various reasons – poor patronage by passengers cited to be the most favoured response even as I reckon that it is due to careless Business management by these operators who took up routes which they knew were unviable and continued to bleed operationally without building parallel commercial opportunities other than not marketing the cost of time to the locals to fly, rather than take up a rail or bus journey. Truejet has ceased operations to Salem while Air Deccan (yes, they were resurrected by Captain Gopinath) ceased operations in the East. And many such examples.  


I had to rush to Madurai on an urgent personal work and took a day trip by Air. After my work was over, I reached the Airport four hours in advance since I had a 2-hour Video Conference with a Client. I was dreading the thought of being seated in those most uncomfortable standard airport-seating. But to my own surprise, there was an oasis – a Lounge before Security hold area. It was prohibitively expensive for Rs. 900 per pax with unlimited time one can spend plus some food and snacks on the house. They wouldn’t accept Mastercard or Visa’s Complementary Lounge options either. But my call was more important, so I chose to pay and use. Didn’t realise how I spent the three-hour period at this well maintained Lounge with polite and courteous staff. Thankfully, I was the sole occupant all along so had the entire 20 seater Lounge for myself.


Took my boarding pass from the Kiosk and walked around and upstairs to be greeted by unexcited staff who were clueless why their “shops” existed what with not a single passenger glancing inside. I noticed local delicacies – Halwa and Milk Khova from neighbouring Tirunelveli and Srivilliputhur respectively. Once inside the waiting area, there were the usual food Kiosks savouring watery coffee, dip tea and oily snacks with sugary bakery stuff. Absolute gold mine of an opportunity to cater to the 3,000 plus passengers who fly off daily from the domestic terminals. Being sensitive Tier 2 cities like Madurai, it would make sense to engage passengers with affordable F&B and Retail options. Perhaps a Levis or Nike may not work, but Indian brands with a regional appeal could do well. 

Tourism development in India is usually seen as an activity to be undertaken by a particular Department of the Government. Worldwide, I have seen a cohesive collaboration between the Public and Governmental agencies to promote tourism – from Singapore to Switzerland, Bangkok to Berlin. It’s only in India that we compartmentalise the potential opportunities. There wasn’t a single poster or a visual that speaks about Enchanting Tamil Nadu which is the spiritual and cultural capital of India. At the Departure hold, passengers and visitors are already travelling back, so instead of promoting the city, why not promote the State? We would sell more Coffee, Tea & much more at neighbouring airports too!