Public Service, Regulatory

India Asks: Do One-Engine Helos Fit Route Development Scheme?

By James T. McKenna | June 7, 2017
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Photo courtesy of Airbus Helicopters.

India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation has asked industry to present arguments June 13 for why single-engine helicopters should be eligible for subsidies under the nation’s plan to improve domestic air service.

The national government’s Regional Connectivity Scheme, launched last year to promote air service to hundreds of unserved or underserved sites throughout the country, is set up to provide subsidies for new service by both fixed-wing and helicopter operators. Specifically, the scheme includes helicopters because India’s Civil Aviation Ministry says they “play a key role in remote area connectivity, intra-city movement, tourism, law enforcement, disaster relief, search and rescue, emergency medical evacuation.”

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However, services with single-engine aircraft – either fixed- or rotary-wing – aren’t eligible for subsidies under the scheme, which also generally requires two-pilot operations. Primarily that is because the scheme’s drafters concluded single-engine aircraft are less safe than twins. Aviation experts, including the Rotary Wing Society of India, have argued otherwise, without winning over government officials. (Obviously, a twin’s higher operating costs cuts into the revenue yield of an operator on a subsidized route.)

Now, as the government prepares for the second round of auctions of routes under the Regional Connectivity Scheme, officials want to hear again the arguments for single-engine aircraft, according to the website www.moneycontrol.com.

The purpose of the scheme is to make flying affordable for people living in cities with airports that are unserved or under-served.

While state-owned Alliance Air and some private airlines have started operating on some of those regional routes, the helicopter services haven’t taken off due to higher cost of operations of twin-engine helicopters – experts putting the cost of flying each passenger in such a helicopter at minimum four times the cost of an airplane flight.

Speaking at a meet on stakeholders’ consultation for the second round of bidding under the regional connectivity scheme, Director General BS Bhullar invited the helicopter service providers to present their case on Tuesday.

The regional connectivity scheme or RCS is titled UDAAN – an acronym for "Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik". RCS and UDAAN are interchangeably used to refer to the scheme.

While considering the request of the industry, the government may have to revisit the viability gap funding provided to helicopter operators under the scheme since the current VGF was derived at considering the ‘twin-engine, twin-pilot’ scenario, Civil Aviation Secretary Rajiv Nayan Choubey said at the same meet.

Needless to say, a ‘single-engine, single-pilot’ has a lower cost of operation besides being more manoeuvrable – a characteristic that suits flying in hilly areas. A lower cost of operation may mean a lower VGF for single engine helicopter services.

Choubey asked the industry to give its views to the ministry if there should be a separate VGF for different kinds of helicopter services.

Under the scheme, the government auctions selected unserved and under-served routes with the award going to the company that asks for lowest funding. The winner gets a three-year exclusive right to operate flights on the route. Fare for half the seats in a flight is capped at Rs 2,500 for an hour of a plane journey of approximately 500 km and a 30-minute helicopter journey.

The selected airline provides 50% of the flight capacity  — with a minimum of nine and maximum of 40 seats for planes and a minimum of five and maximum of 13 seats for helicopters — under the regional connectivity scheme. The government plans to hold the second round of auctions in two months.

 

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