The Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik (UDAN) III recently announced by the Government may prove to be a game-changer for achieving air connectivity in the remote areas of India
The Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik III (UDAN), recently announced by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MOCA), may prove to be a game-changer for achieving the remote areas air connectivity in India in a real sense. Without meaning at all, to take away any credit from MOCA for meeting the tough challenges of launching UDAN I & II, the newest UDAN III will, in the true sense, help to connect the remote parts of the country with metros and other large cities. The earlier two versions of UDAN were focussed on providing air connectivity to places, hitherto not adequately served by any scheduled air services. The main criteria then had been connecting airports un-served or under-served with not more than seven flights in a week. However, this time around, without changing these criteria, three very important new dimensions have been added in UDAN III.
For the first time, the UDAN III scheme recognises the need to synergise the efforts of the MOCA and the Ministry of Tourism (MOT). As some seasoned professionals of the Indian aviation industry would know, there used to be a common Ministry for ‘Aviation & Tourism’ earlier for the very reason that both sectors have to work in unison to achieve optimal growth in their respective areas of activity. While other routes would take three years to become self-sustainable, the ones proposed by the MOT would surely take much less time before the Viability Gap Funding (VGF) becomes a redundant requirement. Here, a rationalised approach, keeping in mind the tourism season in India would be critical to long-term success and sustainability. There has been quite an encouraging response to air routes suggested by the MOT.
This is the time to begin planning big time on integrating tourism routes with long term goals of UDAN to provide affordable air connectivity to remote parts of India. As has been the case for tourism routes in UDAN III, connecting far-flung places of interest to tourists, directly with metros and big cities, RCS should ultimately air connect India’s remote areas to bigger cities in the shortest possible time. There have been 46 routes proposed in UDAN III which qualify to be treated as Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) routes as per existing norms and eligible for RCS being given by the MOCA. In addition, 60 tourism routes were proposed across India which would be provided VGF by the MOT through its own funds. The MOT is aiming to provide point-to-point air connectivity to different tourism destinations to facilitate tourists planning to hop across to places of interest nearby. This strategy would specifically encourage foreign tourists who visit India for a limited period and find it cumbersome to travel up and down through hubs available only at big cities and metros.
The other important feature of UDAN III is allowing single-engine fixed-wing aircraft on RCS routes, as per the conditions prescribed by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for scheduled operations of these aircraft. Further, the aircraft, under this category, certified for nine passenger capacity and would be given VGF for all the nine seats and not just half of seating capacity. Scheduled Commuter Operators (SCOs), with long-term planning and vision, would find single-engine operations much more economical, without any compromise to flight safety. The BAOA has long been advocating for introduction of single-engine aircraft for commuter operations as being allowed in the US since long and in Europe from 2016 onwards. As safety data on single-engine operations in India builds up during the next few years, it would be possible to further rationalise safety regulations in this regard, including the training and licensing requirements for the aircrew.
Finally and most importantly, UDAN III, for the first time, sought to allow use of sea-planes in India on a large scale. Earlier attempts to carry out sea-plane operations through state-owned Pawan Hans did not meet with much success and remained confined to Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The UDAN III proposes ten water aerodromes in five states of the country for starting sea-plane operations. The country’s vast coastline offers endless opportunities for large scale operations of sea-planes. The banks of the holy Ganges enhance the scope of viable sea-plane operations for inland water ways. This time, the sea-plane operations have been restricted to twin-engine aircraft. The BAOA would continue to work with MOCA to consider single-engine sea-plane operations in India for long-term economic gains, without any safety risks. It is just the beginning of sea-plane operations in India and the next phase of RCS i.e. UDAN IV, should see a more rationalised approach to allow single-engine sea-planes for commuter services. Countries such as Canada, with large chunk of remote areas, have been able to reap rich economical benefits through single-engine sea planes. These sea planes not only connect remote areas, but are also a major attraction for tourists.
UDAN III is really coming of age for ambitious RCS, announced as the main thrust area in the National Civil Aviation Policy 2016 (NCAP 2016). With this approach of synergising remote areas air connectivity mission with the MOT, many new routes would open up to achieve the envisioned remote area air connectivity for the inclusive economic growth of the nation. On January 25 this year, the MOCA announced the final award of 235 routes across 73 total proposals put forward by 11 air carriers in India. There were three specific proposals for sea-plane operations from six water aerodromes, which make their debut under UDAN III. These six water aerodromes are a mix of tourist destinations and commuter air operations to destinations such as the Statue of Unity and Guwahati riverfront.
The 235 awarded routes also comprise 46 tourism routes and 189 RCS routes, being provided the VGF by the MOT and MOCA, respectively. The VGF requirement this time would exceed the funds available with the MOCA through its own levy on trunk routes and it plans to seek support from the Ministry of Finance to meet the requirements. The MOT is separately providing 255 crore for routes of tourism interest, including some directly connecting metros and big cities to destinations of interest for domestic and international tourists.
It would be prudent to expect UDAN III to become the big step forward to achieve optimal remote area air connectivity in India during the next two years. There is the need to further rationalise the regulatory approach for commuter operations by single-engine helicopters and sea-planes. UDAN III did not include helicopter operations, which remain indispensible for providing air connectivity in remote hilly areas, where travel by road is time-consuming, especially due to landslides during the rainy season and heavy snowfall in winters. Due to weight restrictions at high altitude, single-engine helicopters are the only viable option.
The case of single-engine sea-plane operations is no different. There is sufficient data available across the globe to establish that commercial sea-plane safety is entirely acceptable with single-engine aircraft, if the associated risks are managed appropriately. Most experienced sea-plane pilots observe that having an additional engine often tempts pilots to practice poor risk management by giving them an inappropriate sense of protection. In countries such as Canada, these single-engine seaplanes play the role of an economic multiplier and provide timely access to supplies and medical aid. Hopefully, there would soon be realisation in India that single-engine sea-planes and helicopters are safe and economically enabling.