|By Anne Musquere
Today less than 300 civilian helicopters are flying in India — that is less than 1% of the worldwide civil helicopter fleet, for a country of 1.2 billion people. But civil helicopter operations in India, suffering from lack of infrastructure, rigid policy and high costs, should benefit from the new National Civil Aviation Policy issued June 15 and the subsequent draft Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) released July 1.
In releasing the draft RCS, the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation explained that it “has the twin objective of promoting balanced regional growth and making flying affordable for masses.” The scheme, which would be in operation for 10 yr, envisions improving connectivity “to unserved and underserved airports of the country through revival of existing airstrips and airports.”
The fare on such routes would be capped at about $37 for a 30-min flight on a helicopter (or a 1-hr trip of about 270 nm/500 km on a fixed-wing aircraft). Low fares would be supported by central and state government concessions, as well as “viability gap funding” to operators interested in kicking off flights in target markets.
The RCS, which Indian officials aim to put into effect before October, is the key component of the National Civil Aviation Policy.
“India has the potential to be among the global top three nations in terms of domestic and international passenger traffic,” that policy says, noting that the nation at present ranked 10th in the world.
As far as helicopters are concerned, the national policy adds that “helicopters play a key role in remote area connectivity, intracity movement, tourism, law enforcement, disaster relief, search and rescue, emergency medical evacuation, etc.”
Besides the RCS, several points of the national policy aim at specifically promoting helicopter usage. Considering the lack of infrastructure, the government said it will facilitate development of at least four heli-hubs across the country to promote regional connectivity. The first heliport, built by Pawan Hans for the ministry at Rohini in northwest Delhi, was supposed to open in May or June.
Regulation is another major aspect. Today, commercial operations are governed by stringent Civil Aviation Requirements, periodically issued by the Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGCA). Operators complain that air traffic control treats helicopters like fixed-wing aircraft. Under the new policy, separate regulations for helicopters will be published by the DGCA “after due stakeholder consultation,” and a separate helicopter office will be created in DGCA.
The policy stresses that helicopters will be free to fly from point to point without prior ATC clearance in airspace below 5,000 ft and in areas other than controlled airspace, prohibited and restricted ones, and temporary segregated or restricted areas (after obtaining air defence clearance). Airport authorities will also provide or lease land for helicopter operations so that they don’t interfere with fixed-wing traffic.
The national policy also targets the development of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS), a sector triggering ambitions among Western companies. Airbus Helicopters said there are 2,000 helicopters worldwide used for emergency medical services (including 1,100 in North America). But there’s only a handful in India.
The Civil Aviation Ministry will coordinate with other government agencies, insurance companies, hospitals and operators, including Pawan Hans, to facilitate operations. Regulations exclusive to HEMS will be made, under which helicopters working only for HEMS operations will not require any operational clearance, including landing at accident and emergency sites, from any agency except Air Defence Clearance. Prior to that, the DGCA had issued in February an operations circular aiming to regulate HEMS.
This move has already triggered major deals with U.S. companies. The first dedicated HEMS in India is set to launch this year, through a partnership of Air Medical Group Holdings and India’s Aviators Air Rescue. They have ordered three Airbus H130s. Global Vectra Helicorp and Era Group also are developing HEMS for the Indian market.
Last year, the Australian Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) predicted that the number of civil helicopters in India will increase by nearly threefold to 800 in the next 10 to 20 yr. This can’t be achieved without a boost in manufacturing or import capacities.