A Flight of Fancy?

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There was skepticism over the govt’s move to develop 100 airports in small cities. But if a new hub-and-spoke concept takes off, it could give a fillip to the economy and Modi’s “Make in India” dreams

By Shobha John


The next phase of aviation growth, it was said, would be in Tier-II and Tier-III cities. In fact, remote connectivity was one of the aims of the Modi government when it swept to power in 2014. With this in mind, it wanted to develop 100 airports in small cities within the next 20 years. And in what is a move to further this dream, the Business Aircraft Operators Association (BAOA) has submitted a list of 10 airport clusters for remote connectivity air services to the Airports Authority of India (AAI) through the civil aviation ministry.
If this plan fructifies, it will reduce the pressure on metro airports as airlines expand their fleet and passenger footfalls go up. It will also give a fillip to the economy of smaller cities and towns, leading to greater buoyancy. During the 12th Plan (ending March 31, 2017), about `1,500 crore has been earmarked to develop non-metro airports.

AIR SERVICE CLUSTERS
These 10 clusters are spread out across various regions in India and include Maharashtra; Gujarat; Rajasthan; the North-East; UP and MP; Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In each cluster, BAOA has identified various airports and hubs, making them a total of 126 airports and 38 hubs. Some of the airports which have been identified are in rather remote areas such as Yavatmal, Keshod, Naliya, Jhunjhunu, Zero, Khowai, Panna, Behala and Donakonda (see table).

table

Jayanth Nadkarni, president of BAOA, said: “We had been working on this for a long time. There is a buzz in the government about increasing remote connectivity. All the airports mentioned in the BAOA list are running airports and have basic facilities such as a runway, air traffic control (ATC), security, fire and ambulance services. But if smaller airports are going to be vehicles for remote connectivity, then they will need hangars where planes can be rectified and 24X7 watch (remain open). Presently, if a plane breaks down in any small airport, several man days are lost in trying to get equipment and technical expertise from metros.”

It is only after these essential services come up that ancillary services such as MROs (aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul) and manufacturing can come in and jobs be created to serve Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” dream, said Nadkarni.

These airports will work on the hub-and-spoke concept. Hubs will be major cities where commercial airlines with their big jets fly, while spokes will be smaller towns, where 40-or 30-seater planes of charter or business companies fly. So, if a businessman wants to go to Jamnagar, he will take a scheduled airline to one of the hubs in Gujarat, say Ahmedabad, and from there, take a smaller plane to Jamnagar. “Of course, this means that charter companies will have to schedule their flights in conjunction with airline companies,” he says.

FAR BEHIND
Though India has a billion-plus people, its aviation reach is far from satisfactory. Just to give an idea of how far we are lagging, let us look at how it compares with other countries. In India, according to BAOA, there are around 400 airports. These include large, small, licensed and uncontrolled ones. Compare this to over 10,000 airports in the US and more than 4,000 in Brazil, which is another BRICS country like India.

Another difference is that while general aviation (GA) and business aviation (BA) planes in India are being pushed out of metro airports due to lack of space, several global cities have more than three airports serving them. For example, New York has John F Kennedy Airport, LaGuardia and Newark, while London has Heathrow, London City Airport and London Biggin Hill. In India, no metro has two airports. It also has no airports catering to GA/BA planes. Compare this to China’s 400 GA airports. And in future, this is expected to go up to 1,500.

However, India’s civil aviation ministry is giving a fillip to regional connectivity as it is allowing non-scheduled operator permit (NSOP) holders or what is called charter operators to fly to non-metros and have schedules like regular airlines. This is similar to what is there in many countries. With better route dispersal, smaller cities will be connected. Many of them will be low-cost terminals and have a basic terminal building, low ticket charges and 1-2 flights a day, starting with smaller aircraft operations. Only essential facilities for operation will be provided till the scale of operations is increased to a commercial model.

India is the ninth largest aviation market and is expected to reach the third position soon. With the development of smaller airports, airlines too will be interested in flying there. However, many hurdles such as deficient infrastructure and various taxes are a spoiler and the sooner the government tackles this, the better it will be.

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