Air travel  Affordable connectivity

Air travel  Affordable connectivity

“Hawai yatra for those wearing Hawai chappal”. That was the slogan given by our prime miinister Narendra Modi before the launch of the UDAN scheme. Despite all the hype surrounding this scheme, rolling out the Regional Connectivity Scheme after all has not been such an easy task for the Ministry of Civil Aviation. RCS was envisaged in the National Civil Aviation Policy (NCAP) two years ago. But, after second round bidding of Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS), Ministry of Civil Aviation is now not keen on going for the third round of bidding as unserved airports that were offered for airlines are not yet operational. Despite the bottlenecks, it looks like UDAN scheme will be put on track.

It was encouraging for the Ministry of Civil Aviation, initially, after half a dozen more airlines bid for routes in the second round. Jet Airways, IndiGo, Zoom Air, MEHAIR, AAA Aviation and Turbo Aviation have been awarded routes in the second round of bidding. Helicopter operators have also shown interest in starting operation under RCS with three operators, Heritage, Heligo Charters and Skyone having been awarded routes in Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. All of this, because the criteria for award of routes were relaxed by Civil Aviation Ministry.

In addition to this, the exclusivity clause of three years was removed and the airlines were allowed to give no-objection certificate to another airline if they want to operate on the same route. The ministry had also diluted norms that restricted two airports in close proximity with each other to participate in the bidding. The modified norms allow routes with a stage length less than 150 km for operations through fixed wing aircraft. Viability Gap Funding for helicopter operators, on their demand, was increased.

Since January when the results of bidding were announced, out of the 325 routes that airlines were awarded, operations have started only on three including Jammu-Bathinda, Bikaner-Jaipur and Kolkata-Tezpur. Airlines were ready to operate on 88 route networks. But, it was mostly because of lack of infrastructure at unserved airports due to which they have not got licenses from DGCA for operating flights. This ruled out beginning of operations on these routes. Many networks had to be also truncated as unserved airports were not ready. These include Rourkela, Neyveli, Bokaro and Burnpur.

Heliports were supposed to be made operational for the helicopter operators. Pawan Hans  is yet to complete work on any heliport which is a new concept for India. The only heliport in India as of now is located in Rohini (National Capital Territory) which has been set up at a cost of Rs 100 crore. Helicopter operators have shown interest in operating from 31 places second round of bidding. So, 31 heliports would be needed. For Heliport, the licensing norms are not so stringent as it is for the airports. It will require only authorisation.

Aviation experts say that helicopters need bare minimum facilities to operate. But, if one is going to start schedule operations then people boarding the helicopter must be given space for resting apart from various other amenities which will only encourage people to use the helicopter. If you are operating frequently then the chances of something going wrong like fire increases. Anything used frequently must have appropriate safety services available to counter any possibilities.

According to the policy prepared by the government on regional connectivity, while the airline has to start operations within six months of being awarded the route, it is the responsibility of the government to offer operationally ready airports. An additional performance guarantee of Rs 1 crore has to be given by the airline to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) on a route if an expenditure of more than Rs 5 crore is made by the government.

But despite all the provisions already there in the policy to allow development of airports, out of the 25 airports from where UDAN operations were to start after Round 2 of the RCS bidding, 21 airports needs to licensed with additional infrastructure.

In addition to this, there are teething problems that is being faced by the Ministry of Civil Aviation in operations of the 60 routes that were awarded in the first round of bidding. Operations have been hit on several routes due to various reasons. “Pune-Nashik route that was awarded in the first round could not be operationalised as the Defence Ministry did not give a slot to the airline. It took three months for Air Deccan to get the slot,” said an official.

The Ministry has admitted that there was a flaw in the policy itself. The policy required the development of airports after the bidding had been done. So, after the routes were awarded, the ministry had a very short window period to develop the airports. “We want now the bidding and development of airports to go in tandem,” a civil aviation ministry official said.

Many of the issues that were later faced by the Ministry of Civil Aviation were not foreseen initially. The ecosystem required for regional operations were not in place due to which obstacles were faced. These include equipping the airports with fire tenders and a passenger screening system. Special fire tenders are required for the airports which can use foam for dousing fire. AAI is now acquiring foam tenders for the all these airports.

In addition to this, there were not enough pilots trained to fly smaller  aircraft. For this foreign aircrew with Foreign Aircrew Temporary Authorisation  (FATA) licenses were needed.

Airports Authority of India (AAI) has to construct civil enclaves in Uttarlai, Bareilly, Darbhanga and Thanjavur due to which operations have not started at these airports. Officials said airline operators want to operate from Dharbhanga as there is a lot of demand. But, these airports are under the control of Ministry of Defence. Officials said that a consent has been given by the Defence Ministry for constructing the civil enclaves. “Airline Operator has to get a slot from the Ministry of Defence for operation of flights in airports which are under the control of Defence,” said an official.

In addition to this, airlines do not have sufficient aircraft for running the operations. Air Deccan and Air Odisha took more than six months to produce lease agreements for aircrafts it wanted to operate. However, initially, it did not have any aircraft to begin the operations. Officials say that if an airline is operating on one route, they must have at least two aircraft so that one is kept on standby when another one develops a snag.  But Air Deccan and Air Odisha is operating on five routes and four routes with five and six aircrafts respectively.

Pinnacle Air which have been awarded routes between Hissar and Chandigarh and Hissar and Delhi in the second round of bidding are hoping that they will get 19-seater Dorniers to start operations. The subsidiary of Air India, Alliance Air and IndiGo is also going to acquire 80-seater ATRs for RCS.

At the moment, the UDAN scheme has been put on the backburner till the nagging issues are sorted out. The civil aviation ministry is in the meantime studying a proposal given by tourism ministry to increase air connectivity to tourist cities. It is likely that 20 tourist places will be selected and airlines will be requested to operate flights to these places. These include Khajuraho, Aurangabad, Hampi, Badami, Hassan and Bhagalpur among others. Also, flights to tourist sites on Buddhist Circuit is also being mulled.

As to how this will be done and whether Viability Gap Funding (VGF) will be given to airlines which operate to these places, there is no clarity. But, Ministry officials say that fare cap as is being done in the UDAN scheme may not be required here.

On the lines of Regional Connectivity Scheme, airports in the tourist spots will have to be developed. “The proposal was given by the Ministry of Tourism and that is why it is expected to furnish the funds that is required for development of airports in these tourist spots,” said an official. It is likely that funds which is being allocated by Ministry of Tourism for a programme called Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) will be used for development of airports at tourist places.

A Joint Committee with officials of both the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Ministry of Tourism is likely to be formed to mull over the modalities of increasing air connectivity to these tourist sites.

The ministry of civil aviation is not ready to disclose the number of passengers that have used the UDAN scheme. A figure of passengers using the scheme will show how successful it has been so far. Routes that connect a Tier I city to Tier II or Tier III city or vice-versa seem to be more successful. These include Delhi-Shimla, Nanded-Mumbai-Hyderabad, Puducherry-Hyderabad and Adampur-Delhi. Officials say that the occupancy on Adampur-Delhi route is 80 percent. However it has said that Rs 214 crores has been collected in the Regional Connectivity Fund as levy from the scheduled airline operators and Rs 60 crores has been disbursed as viability gap funding.

By Manju Gupta

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