A Sec­ond Chance

From Vayu­doot to UDAN, 25 Years on

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - News -

In this crit­i­cal re­view, Vayu takes read­ers back 25 years when the first bold moves were made to in­tro­duce regional air con­nec­tiv­ity in In­dia. This re­sulted in es­tab­lish­ment of Vayu­doot which got off to a ra­tio­nal start with ra­tio­nal com­muter air­lin­ers (Dornier 228s) but whose orig­i­nal im­per­a­tives were aban­doned by those in­charge, re­sult­ing in its ig­nomious end.

When the first bold moves were made to in­tro­duce regional air con­nec­tiv­ity in In­dia over a quar­ter cen­tury back, the then Gov­ern­ment log­i­cally re­lied on the pro­fes­sional back­ground and ex­pe­ri­ence of DGCA, In­dian Air­lines and Air In­dia to en­sure that the spe­cial en­tity formed for the pur­pose (even­tu­ally Vayu­doot) would be suit­ably man­aged. Un­for­tu­nately, there was some in­dif­fer­ence or even prej­u­dice amongst these or­gan­i­sa­tion, mostly ow­ing to gross ig­no­rance of re­al­i­ties. It is there­fore ap­pro­pri­ate to re­view the lessons learnt which will im­pact on the suc­cess – or oth­er­wise – of the lat­est ef­forts to pro­mote regional air con­nec­tiv­ity in In­dia, alias UDAN.

The rai­son-de-etre of In­dia’s first true third level or com­muter air­line, Vayu­doot was not re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated 25 years back, thus its in­evitable fi­nan­cial losses which be­came the main rea­son for its un­timely clo­sure. Lay­ing the blame on the log­i­cally se­lected regional air­liner and all the other ar­gu­ments voiced in re­spect of the air­line or its Dornier 228 fleet, were pe­riph­eral and used only to cam­ou­flage what was gross mis­man­age­ment.

To un­der­stand the sit­u­a­tion vis-a-vis Vayu­doot and its Dornier regional air­lin­ers, it is nec­es­sary to go back in time to the years be­fore this third-level air­line was formed and the Dornier 228 air­craft se­lected by an ex­perts’ com­mit­tee ap­pointed by the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia. It is also true that ev­ery time an air­craft from Hindustan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited is man­u­fac­tured, then that spe­cific air­craft be­comes the tar­get of gen­eral crit­i­cism, and this too was the fate

of HAL’s Dornier 228 regional trans­port air­craft pro­gramme.

But go­ing back some decades ear­lier, in the early 1960s, HAL had ini­ti­ated man­u­fac­ture of the Avro (later Hawker Sid­de­ley and still later Bri­tish Aero­space) 748, in tech­ni­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Bri­tish air­craft and its en­gine man­u­fac­tur­ers. These air­craft were es­sen­tially ac­quired and sub­se­quently man­u­fac­tured to meet re­quire­ments of the In­dian Air Force. In view of the need for a sim­i­lar air­craft type for In­dian Air­lines, the gov­ern­ment de­ter­mined that the same Avro 748, de­liv­ered from HAL should ful­fil this need which pre­cluded fur­ther pur­chases of the Dutch- ori­gin Fokker F-27s. In or­der to help in the sale of HS 748s to In­dian Air­lines, these were ac­tu­ally sub­sidised by the Gov­ern­ment such as to make the HAL de­liv­ery price equal to that of the im­ported F-27.

It is a fact that Avro 748 de­liv­er­ies from HAL were not taken kindly by ei­ther In­dian Air­lines or the pri­vate-sec­tor sup­pli­ers of an­cil­lary equip­ment and ser­vices for rea­sons not nec­es­sary to am­plify upon here. Com­pound­ing this was an ap­palling lack of prod­uct sup­port by HAL and its “in­abil­ity” to ap­pre­ci­ate eco­nomic prac­tices of the civil­ian mar­ket, which soon gave In­dian Air­lines, and oth­ers, the ex­cuse they needed – and used – to ob­struct fur­ther de­liv­er­ies of the Avro 748 from HAL. In this de­vi­ous game, the In­dian avi­a­tion in­dus­try par­tic­u­larly and the coun­try gen­er­ally, be­come the loser.

In stark con­trast were the ex­am­ples of In­done­sia and Brazil, whose re­spec­tive Gov­ern­ments had de­creed that their na­tional air­lines would pro­cure civil air­lin­ers only from the na­tional aero­nau­ti­cal in­dus­try. IPTN-Nu­ri­tanio and Em­braer thus flour­ished, with the In­done­sian and Brazil­ian na­tional air­lines op­er­at­ing NC212s and CN-235s with the for­mer and Ban­derai­nite and Brasilia with the lat­ter.

Notwith­stand­ing these ob­struc­tions, orig­i­nat­ing from var­i­ous sources, HAL’s HS 748 pro­duc­tion pro­gramme was not al­to­gether un­suc­cess­ful. If noth­ing else, it was a cat­a­lyst in de­vel­op­ing self­con­fi­dence within HAL, suf­fi­cient for it to ini­ti­ate a num­ber of de­sign stud­ies for the in­dige­nous de­vel­op­ment of tur­bo­prop trans­port air­craft (the 24-seater HAC-33 be­ing a case in point). By the mid-70s, HAL was well po­si­tioned to launch and ac­tively pur­sue this regional-air­liner de­sign and de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme. The fact that this meta­mor­phosed into the HAL-Dornier 228 (and the fu­ture 328) is another story.

At about that time ( the mid ‘ 70s), In­dian Air­lines was op­er­at­ing a mix­ture of jets and tur­bo­props in its fleet, with a dual fares struc­ture (one for jets and a lower one for tur­bo­props), apart from the East­ern Sec­tor where the fares were even lower, but in­cur­ring heavy losses on its tur­bo­prop net­work. The jet fleet (Boe­ing 737s and Car­avelles) ac­tu­ally cross-sub­sidised most of the tur­bo­prop op­er­a­tions.

The mid- 70s were also a pe­riod of tur­bu­lance for In­dian Air­lines. In­dus­trial dis­putes com­pounded by man­age­ment in­ep­ti­tude and ri­valry for suc­ces­sion in­vited po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence, which in tum led to the ir­rev­o­ca­ble weak­en­ing of long es­tab­lished in­sti­tu­tions, within and with­out the Air­line.

Po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity, the pres­ence of ex­tra con­sti­tu­tional cen­tres of power, the break-down of in­sti­tu­tions took place in In­dian civil air trans­port from 1975-76 on­wards. Vayu­doot was cre­ated un­der such cir­cum­stances and with its launch in 1981, In­dian Air­lines was helped to ‘pain­lessly’ get rid of the loss-gen­er­at­ing part of its

op­er­a­tions. Hence­forth, the fi­nan­cial year end­ing would bring few sleep­less nights to the fi­nan­cial man­agers of In­dian Air­lines.

Another act in this play was be­ing en­acted else­where. A group of well mean­ing pro­fes­sion­als, with hope­lessly in­ad­e­quate re­sources at their dis­posal, were ex­am­in­ing (demi-of­fi­cially) the third-level air trans­port mar­ket in In­dia, its ex­tent and its re­quire­ment of “small pas­sen­ger air­craft.” With the lim­ited data at their dis­posal, how­ever well-in­tended, this study un­for­tu­nately soon be­came the point of ref­er­ence for all fu­ture work on the sub­ject of third-level air links in In­dia.

About this time, the de­fence and paramil­i­tary forces too were ex­am­in­ing their re­quire­ment of light trans­port air­craft for a num­ber of dif­fer­ent roles, which var­ied from per­son­nel trans­port and light lo­gis­tics sup­port for the In­dian Air Force to long en­durance mar­itime sur­veil­lance by the Coast Guard, to a multi-role Naval war­fare ca­pa­bil­ity for the In­dian Navy. The Na­tional Air­ports Author­ity wanted a suit­able plat­form for cal­i­bra­tion of ground nav-aids etc., the Direc­torate of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy for weather re­lated re­search, the Na­tional Re­mote Sens­ing Agency for its sur­veys and the ONGC for ex­ec­u­tive trans­porta­tion.

The Gov­ern­ment was aware of these de­mands for a na­tional light trans­port air­craft and set up com­mit­tee af­ter com­mit­tee ( Sinha, Gid­wani, Za­heer, Menon, and so on) but then pro­cras­ti­nated. The ob­jec­tive was that a com­mon air­craft type be cho­sen to suit the re­quire­ments of the var­i­ous agen­cies, so that the cu­mu­la­tive num­bers of air­craft thus de­ter­mined should by such as to launch an eco­nom­i­cally vi­able man­u­fac­tur­ing pro­gramme in In­dia.

The Menon Com­mit­tee was the last of these many Com­mit­tees, and in­cluded se­nior of­fi­cers from the Air­lines, Air Force and In­dus­try. The con­sen­sus choice was for the Ger­man Dornier 228, se­lected from a long list of con­tenders, which in­cluded the Cana­dian Twin Ot­ter, the Span­ish CASA 212, the Amer­i­can Beech 1900 and the Bri­tish Shorts Sky­van. The Com­mit­tee ruled that of the com­pet­ing air­craft, the Dornier 228 came clos­est to ful­fill­ing the spec­i­fied roles, as laid down by the var­i­ous po­ten­tial op­er­a­tors. The choice was to be op­ti­mal for the cu­mu­la­tive de­mand. More­over, Dornier’s tech­ni­cal and com­mer­cial terms of col­lab­o­ra­tion for man­u­fac­ture and com­pre­hen­sive tech­nol­ogy trans­fer were “su­pe­rior than those of­fered by the com­pe­ti­tion”. It was also recog­nised, and jus­ti­fi­ably, that in or­der to en­cour­age the growth of the in­dige­nous air­craft in­dus­try there should be po­ten­tial for fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of a 30+ seater and en­try into the ex­port mar­ket.

To put the mat­ter in its proper per­spec­tive, from a pro­duc­tion run of some 150 units which were con­tracted for, the de­liv­ery pro­gramme for the civil mar­ket ( Vayu­doot and oth­ers) was less

than a dozen air­craft, with a fur­ther score or more pos­si­ble. The ad­di­tional de­liv­er­ies ear­marked for the civil mar­ket were in­tended to en­cour­age HAL to de­velop its civil mar­ket­ing ex­per­tise and in­fra­struc­ture.

Since many be­lieved that the woes of Vayu­doot were par­tially due to ei­ther the “poor des­patch re­li­a­bil­ity” of the Dornier 228 air­craft or to its “bad eco­nomic per­for­mance” or both, these as­pects needed to be looked into be­fore Vayu­doot’s per­for­mance it­self is ex­am­ined.

There were at the time well over two hun­dred Dornier 228 air­craft al­ready in world­wide ser­vice with some 74 op­er­a­tions in 17 coun­tries. The av­er­age global tech­ni­cal des­patch re­li­a­bil­ity of this air­craft was 99.7 per cent with some op­er­a­tors achiev­ing 100 per cent. In con­trast, Vayu­doot’s des­patch re­li­a­bil­ity achieved never ex­ceeded 97 per cent or there­abouts. Nev­er­the­less, even while the Vayu­doot on-time per­for­mance was poor in com­par­i­son, it still man­aged to achieve one of the high­est util­i­sa­tions in the world, some 207 hours per month on its Dornier 228 air­craft ! The rea­sons for the be­low-av­er­age per­for­mance of the Dornier 228 in Vayu­doot’s fleet were there­fore to be found not with the air­craft but else­where - per­haps with the man­ner Vayu­doot which about con­duct­ing its busi­ness. Even Druk Air of Bhutan had per­formed as well or bet­ter than the world av­er­age and the In­dian Coast Guard had achieved much bet­ter re­sults.

The orig­i­nal pur­pose for which Vayu­doot was formed (at least as far as the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia was con­cerned) was to air­link na­tion­ally strate­gic ar­eas with the rest of the coun­try and to pro­vide ad­e­quate trans­porta­tion in those ar­eas where other modes of trans­port were in­ad­e­quate and dif­fi­cult. With Vayu­doot per­form­ing a so­cio-strate­gic role, com­mer­cial­ism or prof­itabil­ity played lit­tle or no role in the orig­i­nal plans for In­dia’s third-level air trans­porta­tion. Even though the orig­i­nal plan did not ex­pect ‘com­mer­cial­ism’ from Vayu­doot, this was not in­tended to be a li­cense for gross mis­man­age­ment. Un­for­tu­nately, in an en­vi­ron­ment which be­came in­creas­ingly ca­sual on pro­fes­sion­al­ism and soft to­wards in­di­vid­ual self-in­ter­est, this very lat­i­tude was made use of by a co­terie, con­sist­ing of the then Vayu­doot man­age­ment, the bu­reau­cracy and some politicians, at cost of the fu­ture.

So, when a myr­iad of dif­fi­cul­ties be­gan to raise their heads and costs to the na­tional ex­che­quer be­gan to mount, scape­goats were in­vented. First, it was the aged fleet of the HS (Avro) 748 and Fokker F.27s then the “un­eco­nomic” Dornier 228 air­craft, then it was In­dian Air­lines and its ex­hor­bi­tant main­te­nance charges and fi­nally, the very con­cept of this bold en­ter­prise !

The tor­tu­ous tale of Vayu­doot did not end there, and the com­muter air­line was forced to limp along as best as it could much like Delhi Trans­port Cor­po­ra­tion! The lim­ited size of Vayu­doot was hope­lessly in­ad­e­quate for the ge­nius of the pow­ers-that were and so, ac­cord­ing to the dic­tat, Vayu­doot was to ex­pand by co-part­ner­ing with Air In­dia on its do­mes­tic op­er­a­tions. The die was cast !

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