REACHING FOR THE REMOTE
The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came up with the UDAN scheme with the aim of taking aviation to the remote regions and smaller cities of the country.
IT IS NOW WELL known that India is the world’s third largest domestic aviation market and is set to become the third largest overall in the next few years. But try telling that to someone in a town or a remote region and you will draw a blank stare. Because, if a traveller needs to make an urgent visit to an ailing relative in a distant place, he or she has to endure a slow surface journey to reach the nearest metro or large city and catch a flight. The flight would probably land at another large city where yet another tedious rail or road journey would be required to reach the final destination. As a result, the main reason for air travel is defeated.
Out of 130 crore Indians, just three crore fly annually and about 65 percent of these reside in the six metros or travel directly between them. However, people would naturally prefer to fly from their own location rather than travel to another city to catch a flight. In many countries, regional carriers specialise in connecting remote destinations with the nearest metro, but in India they are conspicuous by their absence. Successive governments have struggled over the years to distribute aviation services more broadly, yet even the comprehensive 2007 policy on scheduled regional operations, failed. Several airlines that ventured to launch regional services, came a cropper, some within a matter of months, leaving only the mainline carriers to occupy the regional space.
That is why the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi came up with the UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik) scheme with the aim of taking aviation to the remote regions and smaller cities of the country. UDAN UNLEASHED. The ambitious Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) UDAN was introduced in October 2016 and its first flight was launched in April 2017. UDAN seeks to make it commercially viable for carriers to operate on regional routes while limiting the fares for some seats to make them affordable. Each UDAN flight is required to earmark a minimum of nine and maximum of 40 low-priced seats (restricted to 50 percent of the aircraft’s capacity) and the operator may decide fares for the remaining seats. The UDAN fare for a one-hour journey on fixed-wing aircraft ( half an hour on helicopters) is capped at Rs 2,500 with
proportionate pricing for routes of other duration. Operators get various concessions, plus Viability Gap Funding (VGF) supported mainly through a levy of Rs 5,000 per flight by regular carriers, on key metro routes. The central government provides 80 percent of the VGF corpus, while the states contribute 20 percent, dropping to ten percent for the North-Eastern states and union territories.
In the first round of bidding under RCS, five operators were allotted 128 routes connecting 70 airports, out of which 31 were unserved and 12 were under-served. However, only 15 routes could be activated by the stipulated deadline of September 30, 2017. Air Deccan and Air Odisha that bagged the lion’s share of routes were not ready to commence operations by this date. Besides, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) could not make many of the earmarked airports operational in time. Air Deccan launched its first flight on December 23, 2017, while Air Odisha did so only on February 17, 2018. As of June 2018, only 16 out of the planned 31 un-served airports and 60 out of 128 routes have been activated. The remaining 15 airports are expected to be ready by the end of July this year.
In the second round of bidding under RCS, results of which were announced on January 24, 2018, 325 routes were awarded to 15 operators connecting 78 airports, of which 29 were un-served. Out of these routes, 129 were in a newly created ‘priority areas’ category that includes the remote states. A heartening feature is that as many as 31 helipads will also be connected, thus bringing several remote places into the aviation mainstream. Although the routes are required to be activated within six months, several unserved airports are yet to be made operational, which will result in delayed implementation of this round too. Consequently, further rounds of bidding are likely to be deferred.
There is a huge jump in the VGF from about Rs 213 crore per annum for the first round to around Rs 620 crore for the second. However, it is noteworthy that airlines such as SpiceJet and IndiGo bid to operate flights without claiming VGF. NATIONAL OR REGIONAL?. Most carriers intend to expand their regional fleets in the coming years. SpiceJet, an enthusiastic supporter of UDAN from the start, already has 23 Bombardier Q400 turboprops which are mostly deployed on regional routes. It has placed a firm order for 25 additional Q400 aircraft plus option for 25 more. IndiGo leads the pack with 40.9 per cent domestic market share in May and has signed a term sheet for 50 ATR 72-600 planes valued at $1.3 billion at list prices. About ten of these are already flying on regional routes. Jet Airways has 15 ATR 72-500 and three ATR 72-600 aircraft; Air India has three ATR aircraft; its regional subsidiary Alliance Air operates two ATR 42-300s and 14 ATR 72-600s and plans to reach 20 aircraft by December. Regional aircraft enjoy low fuel taxes, very low airport charges and other benefits under UDAN.
While it is apt to rejoice that aviation is finally reaching the remote regions, UDAN may have the unintended consequence of distorting the regional aviation market. Recall that the scheme was designed mainly to assist cash-strapped regional carriers, charter operators and small start-ups to launch services on unattractive routes. If most of the routes are awarded to the big players, what effect will it have on the minnows? Although unrelated to the RCS, since June 2016, Air Pegasus, Air Costa and Air Carnival have ceased operations due to financial difficulties. This leaves TruJet as the sole regional airline currently with three ATR 72-500 and two ATR 72-600 aircraft. Belgaum-based start-up Star Air plans to launch UDAN operations shortly using two Embraer ERJ-145 regional jets. Air Deccan and its strategic partner Air Odisha possess the scheduled commuter operator (SCO) permit to fly on regional routes and plan to operate a combined fleet of twelve 19-seat Beechcraft B-1900D aircraft. However, their RCS plans are well behind schedule due to the delay in readiness of several hitherto un-served regional airports. REGIONAL AVIATION – GROWING AND YET… Between 2011 and 2017, India’s domestic passenger traffic nearly doubled to 117 million passengers. It is estimated that the first two rounds of bidding under UDAN may add another four to five percent to the total domestic passenger traffic and the figure is likely to rise further as the scheme expands in scope and coverage. But in the euphoria over this impressive growth, the huge challenges ahead should not be underestimated, especially constrained airport capacity. A shortage of pilots for small regional aircraft is also an emerging problem.
The already creaky airport infrastructure, with flight slots and aircraft parking bays scarce at several airports, will be further stretched and will inevitably inhibit regional operations. Private airports are looking for profits and are therefore somewhat unenthusiastic about regional flights that bring them little or no revenue. The Ministry of Civil Aviation has already expressed its helplessness in ensuring slots at Mumbai airport for flights under RCS. Therefore, analysts believe that more airport capacity needs to be quickly created to make UDAN sustainable. Consequently, the announcement in the Union Budget for 2018-19 of the new NABH-Nirman scheme that targets a five-fold increase in capacity at 124 AAI airports within ten years is to be welcomed.
The first two rounds of bidding under UDAN will ultimately connect 56 un-served regional airports and 31 helipads across India, representing a remarkable increase in the 76 airports active before UDAN. However, with perhaps 300 disused or abandoned regional airports still waiting to be connected, besides scores of Greenfield airports, the capital expenditure needed to improve aviation infrastructure over the next two decades, is estimated at a massive Rs three to four lakh crore.
As for regional aircraft, only 12 percent of the industry’s fleet can currently operate on regional routes and their number needs to be raised rapidly. Runways at most of the regional airports are inadequate even for ATR or Q400 turboprops, leave alone regional jets. However, the Beechcraft B-1900D favoured by Air Deccan and Air Odisha may be a good option to speedily expand regional services. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is also adapting its 19-seat Dornier Do-228 military air transport for civilian regional connectivity. Lastly, the indigenous 19-seat Saras (Crane) is commencing a proposed 25 test flight schedule and promises to be 20 to 25 percent cheaper than similar aircraft procured from abroad. When Saras enters service, hopefully within a couple of years, it would provide a home-grown answer to the regional aviation riddle.
IN THE EUPHORIA OVER IMPRESSIVE GROWTH, THE HUGE CHALLENGES AHEAD SHOULD NOT BE UNDERESTIMATED, ESPECIALLY CONSTRAINED AIRPORT CAPACITY