Lonely Planet Writer

India is running out of flight numbers as aviation fever grips the nation

The skies over India are filling up fast, as the nation’s aviation industry continues its meteoric expansion. From a creaking, state-owned monopoly in the 1980s, air travel in India has expanded to a multi-billion dollar industry, with more than a dozen government and private airlines offering flights to destinations across the subcontinent. However, one unexpected consequence of all these new flights to everywhere is a sudden shortage of flight numbers.

Taj Mahal sunset silhouette.
Taj Mahal sunset silhouette. Image by Shutterstock

India relies on a three digit identification system for domestic flights, but there are only so many possible combinations of numbers, and the proliferation of flights serving domestic airports across India has led to multiple flights with similar flight numbers arriving at airports at more or less the same time, causing air-traffic chaos.

Jaipur from Nahargarh Fort at sunset
Jaipur from Nahargarh Fort at sunset Image by Getty Images

According to the Airport Authority of India, there were 1800 call sign conflicts over the 2016 summer season, with air traffic controllers struggling to identify the correct flights on approach or take off from the nation’s airports. In some cases, flights with similar flight numbers and call signs were stacked just 15 minutes apart, with serious implications for flight management and air safety.

Experts insist that India needs to urgently move to a four digit system, to reduce the chance of call sign conflicts, but for the time being, all of India’s big carriers use a three-digit identifier and a two letter airline code. As an interim measure, the Indian government has introduced a two-hour separation gap for flights with similar numbers to save stress and headaches for air traffic control.

A post shared by Delhi – NCR Pages (@ncrpages) on Mar 16, 2017 at 3:18am PDT

This is a problem that is only going to become more urgent, with India predicted to become of the world’s top three aviation markets by 2020. Air passenger numbers in India in 2016 increased by 25% on the previous year, and airports across the country are scrambling to extend runways and expand curtains to cope with the increased demand.

Get the top travel news stories delivered straight to your inbox every weekday by signing up to our newsletter.